Life, with Art

It is said that when selling artwork online one should take nice photos showing the art in a pleasing environment, such as you would find in the pages of home design magazines like Dwell or Architectural Digest. Looking at photos and ads in these mags, I get the feeling that the usually fluffy decorative paintings, which occupy about 1/10th of the photograph’s space, are worth a similar fraction of the tastefully designed room’s value. Want to make a $15,000 painting look like it’s worth its price? Take a picture of it in a mouth-watering, $150,000 interior.

art in luxury home 110831

(One quick note: the painting there on the left is a Will Cotton, who is a living master of fluffy decorative painting. I saw one of his oils at the Dallas Art Fair last spring and the gorgeousness of the paintwork made me cry; artists like him keep artists like me away from representational oil painting. I have nothing to add to what he’s able to do with the brush.)

Another type of luxury interior shot–usually more about furniture than art–features young adults lounging on a couch or the floor, sporting comfy footwear, engaged pleasantly in a book or laptop, or smiling contentedly at each other. The woman should be holding a ceramic coffee mug. And if a child is playing quietly nearby, you have a masterpiece.

luxury interior 1 110831 luxury interior 2 110831 luxury interior 3 110831 luxury interior 4 110831

Ahhhh, isn’t that the life? Cleanliness and order, tranquility and contentment, good lines, feng shui.

I am a skeptic, which means I ask for evidence to support a claim, and which I guess makes me a realist, too. I like for my ideas and values to correspond as closely as possible to the actual state of things outside of my body, in the objective world we all presumably inhabit. And I find little evidence in my experience that supports the existence of the kind of lifestyle enjoyed by the characters in these photos. They remind me of sitcoms in which one of the characters has had her baby, but the story must continue, so when new mommy needs to act like the grown-up that her audience is accustomed to, she just lays baby down for a nap or puts baby in a playpen where baby coos softly, or not at all, and lets mommy do her thing. Photography like this, and really all photography in most every magazine, drives me nuts.

So, in my ongoing effort to brush aside delusion and fantasy and replace them with a more familiar reality, I want to share my installation shot of God’s Covenant at the Event Horizon, in the condition in which it actually exists.

gods covenant at home 110831

Our furniture is used and well-worn; our bed is unmade; our laundry is underfoot; our carpet is characteristic of a rental home. Our kids do not play quietly or alone. JPS had the fun idea of bringing all his Batman toys onto mom and dad’s bed, and he only played with them solo because he saw that a camera was pointed at him. He has the reputation around here for lying on his back, absentmindedly spinning our recliner with his feet, if no one will play with him. His mom and I encourage independence in our kids, but the fact is that unless a friend or cousin is in the house, they are either playing with us or engaged with some kind of electronic screen.

If JPW were to sit on the floor with a ceramic coffee mug, it would probably end up shattered on the tile and certainly end up overturned on her clothes, few of which are white, because she is the mother of young children and knows better. We read mostly on the toilet, which is the only place where we can occasionally find peace. If we were to snuggle up on the couch with the laptop, we would be assailed by the children, who cannot bear to be excluded from gazing at a monitor.

I find life an insane, unwieldy, improvised mess. We humans are animals, and serenity, while longed for (as millions of magazine photos show us again and again), is rarely achieved, and short-lived. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. Life is an adventure that is not to be tamed by the right couch or composite flooring material. And certainly not by art. I think the best art and photography embrace and celebrate the insanity around us, which is what my photo of a painting in a home with a child is going for.

God’s Covenant at the Event Horizon, 2010

I want to catch you up on some of the larger artworks I’ve made in the last year since we moved to Garland. A lot of the paintings I’ve done over the years are in the medium-to-large size range–between about 3′ and 8′ in one dimension–which doesn’t lend itself either to ease of shipping or modesty of price; they are a bit heavy, and they take a lot of time to make. As you know, I have a broad commitment to finding ways of making reasonably-priced artwork and connecting to an audience that includes, but is not restricted to, the traditional contemporary art world. But, I am also committed to making the best artwork I can, and this pursuit sometimes takes me beyond parameters such as pricing, weight, scale, and so on.

God's Covenant at the Event Horizon, 2010

Now that I’ve begun the Camelot quest and I’m making the effort to meet the members of my community here in the Dallas area, as well as on the web, I want to make these larger, more intensive pieces of art available for your viewing and, because there’s always a chance, purchase. If a neighbor did one day decide to buy one of my larger paintings, the collector, being local, is all-too-easy to reach for delivery, so shipping would be a non-issue. For now, and for simplicity, there will be no Paypal buttons for these pieces, as I don’t expect those of you who live far away to want a painting shipped to you at a cost somewhere in the low $100s, considering crate-building, weight, and insurance. And for you local potential collectors, cash or check is an easier form of payment, and I don’t have to cough up a percentage to Paypal for handling it. If one of you would like to subvert my expectations and pay for the crating and shipping of this or another large piece to you, please show me the error of my ways, and I’ll accommodate you posthaste.

That long preface behind us, let’s turn our attention to the painting above. It was one of the two paintings I first made once we got settled here. Some of you may have seen it on my former blog, Look On My Works. It’s comprised of many layers of paint which I alternately built up and sanded down until I liked what I was looking at, which is a kind of supernatural cosmic landscape, and I titled it with the kind of language Wayne Coyne uses to name Flaming Lips songs.

Covenant is acrylic on canvas, 48.5 ” x 41.5.” It lives in our bedroom, as it has since last autumn, and, unlike most of the stuff I’ve made as an artist, I haven’t gotten tired of looking at it. In fact, like the best work an artist does, it makes me say to myself, “Wow. I can’t believe I made that.”

Jim Public Is Growing Up

I’m happy to announce two extensions of the Jimiverse!

First, I’ve made this blog available for Kindle at Amazon.com. The cost, set by Amazon, is $1.99/month, and you get a 14-day free trial. If you click the Amazon link in the sidebar, just there to the left, not only will you be taken to the Amazon page where you can subscribe to Jim Public: Your Local Artist, but I think I get a couple of cents if you end up subscribing to it after having clicked that specific link! I can already feel the weight of those pennies jingling in my pockets…

Next, I created a Twitter account. I’m @jimpublic. As I make blog posts, I will tweet the link over there in addition to providing a link on Facebook. If any of you can suggest some good folks to follow on Twitter, shout them out. So far I’ve already stopped following a lot of comedians who keep spouting out mean-spirited one-liners that just don’t work for me.

It’s thundering outside! Our crunchy corpse of a lawn may just have a second chance at life.

Camelot? Yes, Camelot

In my last post I talked about making mistakes, and although I don’t intend for my errant ways to become a habitual topic on this blog, I would like this morning to present you with an example of sloppy decision-making.

When I dreamed up this idea of Facelife I first came up with the quest of meeting all my neighbors and then I came up with the name, which I thought was a funny reaction to Facebook and to what is lacking in online social media, namely facetime; society functions better when we, in addition to choosing our friends as we do online, also have to learn to coexist peacefully with the more random assortment of folks near whom we happen to live in our community.

In naming my endeavor, the responsible route would have been for me to consider the name for a while, weigh the pros and cons, and decide, ultimately, if this would be a name I was willing to stick with. If Mark Zuckerberg, for example, decided that he didn’t like the ring of “Facebook” and decided, today, to rename it “Zuckerbook,” pandemonium would ensue.

My neighbor-meeting project has no ambition or possibility of becoming the type of cultural and business phenomenon that Facebook has become, but I should have treated it with the same kind of care at its inception, because renaming things in mid-stream is bad form. But, it turns out I don’t like the ring of “Facelife.” I don’t want something I’ve done to have a reactionary title. (Last year, I purchased a web domain called “jamezon.com” before dumping it for similar reasons and moving forward with the better-named “jimpublic.com,” and I should have kept that lesson in mind.)

As I’ve been chatting with neighbors and learning more about this community, I’ve learned that the neighborhood’s nickname is “Camelot,” which I should have deduced on my own since the name of each street here has an Arthurian regality to it. So, henceforth, my quest is now called Camelot! I won’t be going back and re-writing history in old posts, but I have re-named this category on the blog, and the term “Facelife” will cease to issue from my lips.

To Camelot!

Screwing Up, Over and Over Again

If I ever decide to write a blog devoted to my screw-ups I have an overabundance of material to work with. I could begin with my decision on Monday to write down as much as I could remember of my conversation with Marge so I could share it with you, as a kind of character sketch to accompany her portrait. Because we had such a nice, long chat, I was concerned that I might mess up some of the facts, so, like a diligent journalist, I submitted a draft of my story to her for fact-checking.

After delivering it to Marge, who received it with alarm at having possibly anyone read what she had to say to me, I realized that I was a jackass. Conversations are generally understood to be meant for those involved, and I had done the equivalent of revealing a hidden tape-recorder to my new acquaintance, which could not have been great for her trust in me. I spent the rest of the evening, all that night, and the next morning preoccupied with the guilt of having been a jerk to a senior. And the following morning, seeing her in her yard after I had dropped off JPG at school, I pulled up, rolled down my window, and told her to disregard the story. I apologized for the invasion of her privacy, and told her that I’ll just stick to chatting and drawing.

I think it turned out okay. She didn’t mind what I had written and, anyway, was way more interested in talking to JPS, who was groggy in the back seat. Don’t you love how seniors adore children! Seeing her affection for my kids helps keep things in perspective during the many times a day that those guys drive me nutty.

I lack the gift of playing out scenarios to test them for potential problems, and I’m only a little less bad at identifying my screw-ups as they occur in social situations. Usually I just go for it and stand prepared to apologize, which I end up doing quite a bit and which can’t be good for the image I’d rather project as a man who knows what he’s doing and stands behind it, no regrets.

Fortunately there is an area of my life about which I am resolved and confident–my artwork. But I screw that up all the time, too. However, one thing about art that makes it better than life is that when I screw up a drawing, nobody gets hurt but me. And it does hurt. I get frustrated at my feeble skills and then take a minute before I start another drawing, wondering how I’ll manage to make it any good after all the botched versions leading up to it. I present you a case study below.

4 Erins, each screwed up

I spent twice as much time failing to get a likeness of Erin as I did eventually finishing the drawing. I would draw, realize it was awful, get angry, leave the table all flushed with hopelessness, and then return to start the cycle anew. Drawing a young woman has its challenges, because every line has the potential to age her by decades. Erin, who is probably a couple years younger than I am, kept turning out looking like a wizened, mature woman from the Rex Morgan comic strip. The woman in the upper right looks okay, just not like Erin. I especially marvel at the version of Erin as Abe Lincoln.

So, I share this with you as evidence that one success is usually the outcome of many failures, and that the cliches about never giving up are good advice.

Painting at the Elementary School (Year 1 of 9)

Elementary Hall Art 1

With JPG in 3rd grade and JPS not starting kindergarten for another two years, the Public family is looking at eight more years of involvement with our lovely neighborhood elementary school. Last year was our first year in this community, and my wife and I volunteered throughout the school year and over the summer, assisting with field trips and parties, teaching a few art lessons, making props for the talent show, and, finally, painting five inspirational-type words in the hallways, as you can see above and below.

Kindness, Respect, Attitude, Honesty, Responsibility.

If, during each of the nine total years that we’ll be a part of the school, I spend a day or two adding some painted flourishes to it, I’m hoping it will be an all-out public school spectacle by the time we’ve moved on to middle school.

So, I am finding ways to merge my missions of being an artist and doing something worthwhile in the community. Volunteerism is an excellent way to achieve this goal. And, when one volunteers for her community the effort is never fully given away because, as a member of the community, she receives the benefit of the work along with everyone else. The same goes for making drawings of my neighbors and giving them the original artwork: we both win in that exchange because, as it has been through centuries of human society, the gesture of gift-giving enriches the relationship that is being established.

Elementary Hall Art 2

Neighbor, August 23, 2011

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Facelife has begun!

On Monday morning it was not yet 90 degrees and there were some clouds in the sky. “The sooner I start this, the better,” I thought, and I recalled that I had seen a retired-age woman working in the yard of the house where I had planned on beginning the neighbor-meeting campaign, which meant that she might be home during the day. So, before I had time to think about what I was going to say, I approached the door and rang the bell, relieved that it was too late to worry about whether or not to go through with this.

The woman opened her door and I introduced myself as Jim who is trying to meet everyone in the neighborhood. After a few seconds, when she seemed comfortable with the idea that I had just come by for a chat, she stepped onto the porch and we began a visit that was to last for the next 45 minutes. I thought about the piece of door-to-door soliciting advice that warns about people who would take up too much of your time talking if you let them, and we laughed when I shared with her that this admonition was the very thing I was hoping for.

Marge is very nice. I took my kids over there yesterday to say hello, and she gave them some books, lollipops, and a ceramic Casper the Friendly Ghost that goes in a flower pot. We talked about knowing one’s neighbors and how it can improve our quality of life. She told me a story from her childhood about an old Jewish man they called the Sheeny (she never knew what the spelling was supposed to be) Man who came through the street once a week collecting old tires and other castoffs. She said that when he came through, rather than chasing him off with a brandished stick, she and her siblings would run inside to her parents shouting, “The Sheeny Man’s here! What can we give him!” I like that little story. Having a sense of community forces each of us to judge less and accept more.

I feel good about this first door-knocking! We’ve chatted a few times over the past few days. I hope I don’t have to endure too many shoo offs and/or language barriers before I find more folks who are up for a neighborly chat. I gotta say, I’m a little high right now. The social beast in me, for the first time in a long time, is patting its great belly, eyes half opened, smiling, sated.

The Public Family, August 22, 2011

110823 The Publics

That’s me and JPW, the tall ones in the back. JPS is the short one with the silly grin, and JPG is showing us her demure smile.

So, Facelife continues to come together. I have always hated approaching people without having anything to offer. This has been a problem for me in dealing with the gatekeepers of the art world, and in fact it is my experience in the arts that informs my distaste for having little or nothing to offer to someone. Artists want other people to show their work and help them to be successful. We hang around receptions and weasel our way into parties and dinners so that eventually our big break will happen. Hanging around artists for long enough, one starts to feel that they see you and everyone else as potential ladder rungs that they may step on as they climb to art-stardom. I’m all done with that.

Which is one of the reasons why I’m focusing on my community and not on my superiors among the cultural scene. So, back to Facelife, when I introduce myself to the people in my neighborhood, I want to have something real to offer them as a gesture of goodwill. I also seek a life in which the facts of daily living and the less tangible world of art can blend into one. And, I have stumbled upon just the thing to unify art and life! With the permission of each person/household I meet, I’ll snap a photo of them, make a drawing, scan it for my records and my blog, and give the drawing to the subjects as a gift.

As I try to build my audience through my blog and other activities in the community and on the web, I’ll be showing these drawings and sharing a little about the characters in them as I get to know the people around here. I feel that giving the original drawings back to the people who made them possible is the neighborly thing to do; it’s a gesture that I hope will embody my appreciation for the role that they play in this Facelife experience.

The above drawing of the Publics is a prototype. Mine is the first of the 227 homes in the neighborhood to be represented on this blog.

Reading, Crying

082211 JPG reading to Jim and JPS

Yesterday was the last day of summer vacation. In one hour I will be dragging what I hope will be two very chipper children from their beds, 2 1/2 hours before the time they awoke just yesterday. JPW, my wife, would have preferred that I had started channeling them into the straight and narrow in anticipation of today’s abrupt return to school-year reality, but I opted for the opposite approach, which means that my kids and I languished in bed until after 9am these past few days, and no Saxon math or piano practice occurred.

While this description of summer’s final weekend may reek of sloth, I counter it by sharing with you just how much reading went down over those same two days. JPS, being a few months shy of 4-years-old, doesn’t “read” much yet, though he can sound out many one-syllable, single-vowel words, a fact that makes his parents both proud and eager for the day a few years hence when all four of us can enjoy an afternoon of quiet reading, each with his or her own book. JPG, on the other hand, is reading well ahead of her age level, which is to be expected of any child whose parents’ dirty-hippy tendencies have steered her from the screen to the page. I maintain that if you take 100 3-year-olds, curb their consumption of television and computers, and replace that time with one-on-one reading instruction, while modeling the behavior as an adult who reads for leisure, two years later you will end up with just shy of 100 5-year-olds who read well and often, leaving an allowance for the few kids who will have learning disabilities and will need continued practice and guidance to catch up with their peers.

As the summer heat pounded outside, we didn’t leave the house much this weekend. JPG was content to read her mom’s Archie comics by the dozen, but I needed a way to pass the time that could engage all three of us. She and I had three chapters of Wilson Rawls’s Summer of the Monkeys to finish, so I gathered us in the living room and read aloud, which doubly pleased my daughter, because she not only loves being read to but has also been promised that when I finish reading Summer to her I will begin the long postponed reading of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The reading was going as well as I could have hoped. JPS brought in his monkey and woobie and lay around with his finger in his mouth, as he has always done when he’s resting or mentally checking out for a bit. He even chimed in with a few pertinent questions, such as, “Is Jay Berry a boy or a girl?” and “Who’s the girl?” before returning his finger to his mouth and rolling his eyes back into snuggle-coma position.

But, good things can’t last forever, and I had anticipated that I would be the weak link in our quiet afternoon of story time. For those of you who haven’t read Summer of the Monkeys, first, I recommend it as a great book for upper elementary age people, and second, I’ll say that it’s a crier. I knew what was coming, having read it when I was about JPG’s age, but as the book built to its climax and even as it coasted through the denouement, I was finally overcome.

I get emotional while I read books aloud to my daughter. Usually we are reading stories that are legitimately tearful at times, but I think there’s something in the act itself of dad-reading-to-daughter that pre-loads my tear ducts and sets my lower lip aquiver. I like to think that this routine display of an adult male’s emotions lends depth and intensity to the reading, but it’s more likely that it’s just irritating for my listener to have to endure so many pauses during key scenes as the reader stabilizes his breathing and tries to force the croaks out of his voice. I suspect that these often lengthy pauses in fact destroy the pace of the story and lead to attention drift in the listener. But yesterday we found a solution.

When the weeping was too distracting and I had to tell my audience, “Sorry: this book makes my cry,” JPG offered to take over and do the reading herself. The poor kid was ready to get this show back on the road. I was grateful, and as I calmed myself with sips of afternoon coffee, I listened to her read several pages. She’s a good little reader, but very fast and not terribly articulate in her delivery, as all little kids are, so I’m looking forward to a new routine of passing future books to her when I reach troublesome waters and need a few minutes to steady myself. I could use the break, and she could use the practice.

Later, before bedtime, I read the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to her, which is my favorite of the series for its sensitive and accurate portrayal of early adolescence. It was the Potter novel that, for me, after J.K. had already upped the stakes with Prisoner of Askaban, made it clear that these books were the real thing, not mere escapism, but a microcosm of human life. And, I’m glad that I can pass over the book to JPG when I need a moment, because just reading Goblet to myself makes me heave and splutter.

Nancy

Yesterday ended the Public family’s epic month of vacationing, and we now look ahead to 3rd grade starting in a few days for JPG and pre-K for JPS a few weeks further. As we were getting settled on the plane which was to rend us from Salk Lake City, and as we were just tasting the first bitter notes of acceptance that travel season was indeed over, something unexpected and very nice happened: the woman who was to take the seat to my right extended her hand and introduced herself, “I’m Nancy.”

I’ve made small talk on airplanes over the years, and I’ve done my fair share of burying my nose in a book, but I’ve never been so directly and pleasantly addressed by the person who was to spend the duration just inches away from me. I would have bet money that any chit-chat with my fellow passengers would have begun with a bemoaning of the summer heat. “I’m Nancy,” with an extended hand, is a reminder that in all things simple directness is not only the easy way, but the most effective.

She was very nice. In fact, I recognized her from our flight four days prior to Salt Lake from Denver, the inverse of the journey at hand. I didn’t remember the tall, suited 19-year-old young man seated in front of her, Nancy’s second oldest son, whom she had been escorting from Minneapolis to Salt Lake for his mission (or mish, as those of us who have spent the last 1.6 decades in close contact with Utah and their famed religion sometimes call it) to the Philippines. As we talked, we learned that her son and my near-4-year-old son both have hearing loss of different kinds: her son has eustachian tube issues that have left his ear drums perforated–something they are hoping to correct after he returns in two years–and JPS has neurological hearing loss, which cannot be corrected surgically but has been very effectively treated, so far, with an excellent pair of cute little green hearing aids and a few incredible speech therapists.

She talked some about raising 6 kids–all boys but the youngest–and I talked about being an artist and stay-home parent. I had accidentally brought my five most recent paintings on paper to Utah in my large sketchbook, so I pulled them out and did a little show and tell. It was fun. This is the kind of thing I live for. Meeting a kind stranger, talking a little, and, as the icing on the social cake, showing some artwork. I like to think that showing one’s artwork to strangers is a good thing, because most people seem not to have much contact with art or the makers of it. But, what was so nice about the whole experience is that the 90 minutes we spent next to each other were so warmly colored by the way she initiated it.

It’s so easy to despair about the state of humanity; every day offers too much evidence that we humans are a sorry lot. In fact, two nights before the flight, we were playing a game at my brother- and sister-in-law’s house, and to the question, “Which animal/insect do you find most disgusting?” I answered, “Humans.” It was for laughs, but there was some truth to it, too. One of the things I hope to get from Facelife is a counter to that tendency to see the worst in people. We’re complicated, full of goodness and badness, and I think that if you seek the good in people you’ll find it. I’m hoping to.

As you know, it’s still terribly hot, so I have yet to knock on my first door of the Facelife campaign. But, what a timely and inspiring moment I had on that flight! Being on the receiving end of what I’m setting out to do, and being greeted by someone in such an open manner, have gotten me more excited about meeting lots of strangers. If I can pull it off like Nancy did, it will turn out to be a simple task.

And, I should mention, as we talked on the plane, I regretted my answer to that disgusting animal question. I should have said bagworms.