I Think I’ve Been Had

Jim Public portrait of two grandparents, September 18, 2011

Early in the door-knocking phase of the Camelot project–I have only a few dozen homes left to greet!–I met a neighbor who, whether intentionally or not, got the better of me. Even before he answered the door, I knew I was dealing with a character. Minutes earlier, I had been chatting with a friendly retiree a couple doors down who told me laughingly that the neighbor in question was a Cajun Vietnam veteran reprobate, which he told me he meant affectionately.

I rang the doorbell, waited, rapped on the door, waited, and at last the man answered the door not wearing much. When I told him I was a neighbor and I’m doing this neighbor-meeting-and-drawing campaign, he told me I could draw his grandparents and went into the house for a few minutes. He returned with an 8 x 10 framed photo of his long deceased grandmother and grandfather, along with a very small photo of a man in uniform who turned out to be his father. He handed them over to me, asking that I not take too long because these were his only prints of these photographs.

A little stunned, but feeling open to the strange possibilities of my quest, I accepted the task, and told him that my intentions are to draw my neighbors, and he said, “You can draw me and my wife when you finish with these.”

Normally I would have declined. As with lawyers, accountants, nurses, so with artists: there are people who think, because they know you outside your professional capacity, that they can ask you to do for free what you would charge others for. I’ve had far more offers to draw and paint people for free than I’ve had offers to pay me for these services. But in the context of the Camelot project, I’m in a giving mood, so I went for it. I don’t plan to make this a habit, but that’s just how this interaction with this neighbor went down.

What really struck me about this conversation is that this guy was in no way caught off guard by a stranger on his doorstep offering to draw him as a gift. It was as if he’d been waiting for an artist to knock on his door so he could get some free drawings of his kin, and when I arrived, he was ready, as if to say, “I’m glad you finally dropped by; I’ve got just the thing for you.”

So, I did the drawings, walked them over to the neighbor, who was happy to receive them, and we scheduled an appointment for me to come and snap a photo for the drawing I had intended to do from the beginning. When I showed up at the designated time, there was no answer. I stood waiting at the door, slowly accepting what felt like a foregone conclusion: I’m not going to get a photo of this man and his wife. He probably forgot the appointment; I don’t think he meant to dodge the photo op. But, as I’ve gone through the neighborhood and found that very few people answer their doors and even fewer are receptive to the notion of my drawing them, I’ve realized that chasing my neighbors in order to be friendly and offer a gift isn’t the best use of my energy. I’ll continue to make the effort to connect with them, and leave the decision to have the drawing made in their hands.

Which is to say, I don’t expect to be making the drawing of my Cajun neighbor and his wife; but, if something changes, I’ll let you know.

And if you want a portrait like this done, I’ll soon be adding a page where you can commission one. They’re 10″ x 8″ and the price is $50 for the first person and $25 for each additional person. If you’re looking for a good deal on a family portrait, look no further.

Jim Public portrait of a father in uniform, September 17, 2011

Welcome

The door-knocking, neighbor-meeting campaign continues. I’ve been going out each day between 4:30 and 5:30, which is a time that works well for me since it falls before our supper time, and, therefore, I hope, before most everyone else’s supper time, too. I’ve been to 138 homes, which puts me past the halfway point in this project.

In the past week I’ve developed a growing fondness for the word “welcome,” especially when it’s printed on door mats or crafty signs that people use to make their porches more cozy-looking. It’s not that anyone has made me feel particularly unwelcome. A few neighbors have spoken to me through their doors, one told me he wasn’t interested and turned down my flier, and one opened the door, looked me up and down quickly, and told me it definitely wasn’t a good time. No one has been hostile, which I appreciate very much, and I sympathize with those who are reluctant to have a chat with a dude who just knocked on their door.

When I approach a home that has nothing on the porch–no mat, no cute signs, no pots, brooms, or chairs–it feels a little cold, as if the residents aren’t eager to have folks approaching their door. Occasionally I see a “no soliciting” sign, which does strike me with anxiety for fear of a confrontation; I don’t savor the idea of trying to be polite and neighborly to someone who thinks I’m soliciting them. So far, thankfully, I’ve not had to defend my campaign to anyone, and honestly I’m pleased and surprised that so few front porches greet you by saying, “No soliciting”.

The welcome mat, the “enter and be happy” or “god bless this home” signs, these make me feel all warm and friendly as I approach the door. It’s not that my will to knock on the door is affected by how welcoming it is; I just get a feeling of general reassurance that there plenty of people even here in isolated suburbia who make the effort to put a happy face on that threshold where one’s private space meets the great, wide, public world.

I have also been adjusting the way I talk to people on their doorsteps. Specifically, I had been getting bummed by the consistent expressions of polite bewilderment when I told my neighbors that I wanted to draw a picture of them. It seems that when a stranger at your door tells you, after about 15 seconds of conversation, that he would like to take a snapshot of the members of the household and make you a drawing as a gift is cause for alarm. There is no precedent in my own life for talking to a stranger on my own porch and feeling that he is there just to be friendly, and that whatever he may be saying or offering is part of no ulterior motive, but a sincere gesture of neighborliness.

So, I now introduce myself as James who lives a few streets over, who has lived in the ‘hood for about a year and is going around meeting people in an effort to get more familiar with the neighborhood. I say that I’m also doing a neighborhood project, and I hand over the flier and ask them to look it over and contact me if they’re interested, and then I continue to talk about living in the ‘hood and see if the conversation goes anywhere. This approach spares me the awkward feeling of having just startled someone who is polite enough to stand in their doorway with me for a minute. I would rather have a brief, neighborly conversation than make a pitch for what is turning out to be an offer that is being far less warmly received than I imagined it would be.

That’s the great thing about taking your ideas out the front door and into the world of people: you start to find out just how big the gap is between the drawing board of your ideas and the field of play where those ideas confront reality.

A Nice Day for Door-to-Dooring

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Friday afternoon I grabbed a stack of “A Quest for Camelot” newsletters and walked over to the front of our neighborhood, to the house I pass most often as we drive in and out of here. I was a little excited, mostly anxious, about knocking on all these strange doors. I was jumping into the Camelot quest for the first time. I rang 21 doorbells that day, and today I got up to a total of 66, so I’ve completed 29% my goal of knocking on all of the 227 doors in this neighborhood.

What happened at the first door (shown in the picture above) foreshadowed what would occur in 73% of my interactions on my neighbors’ front porches: the experience begins and ends with the knock. So, armed with my newsletter, I was prepared for this contingency. I folded them to show the title first, so that the neighbor would possibly recognize the name of his or her neighborhood, Camelot, and not throw away the letter immediately.

At several of the homes there were obviously people inside. Some people peered at me through a parted curtain and walked away, and others carried on talking in a different language and opted not to answer the door. Living in a neighborhood with a large Asian population, I am not surprised that they didn’t answer their doors often. One woman answered, smiled, said, “No English,” but continued to stand there civilly with me while I briefly tried to pantomime my little speech before thanking her and leaving the letter in her hands. I have found that if there are slippers and some kind of cement or ceramic toad/lion/dragon figure on the porch, no one is answering that door. The combination of simply not being home and the culture and language barriers have made this theory 100% accurate so far. We’ll see if it stands when I finish.

Of the 18 people I did speak with, two were suspicious and dismissive and spoke to me through their closed door, a few were reserved but nice, and 14 were between friendly and really friendly. All things considered, though I’m still anxious about how much more of this I have to do (cold door-knocking is just plain nerve-racking, but I think it’s doing me some good), it has been a good run so far. I have not met any blatant misanthropes, and I’ve met 14 nice people I probably would never have spoken to had I not knocked on their doors.

At this point, then, the glass is definitely mostly full. Let’s hope it stays that way as I try to get the rest of these newsletters hand-delivered by the end of the month!

Highlights from the New Studies

Study 1, September 2011, Jim Public

A common thread in my artwork seems to be an urge to use every color in every piece I make. This goes back a long time, and if you look at the thumbnails of all the work I’ve put on this site, you can see that trend at work. If you were to take a jpg of pretty much any piece of art I’ve made and reduce it to 1 pixel, thereby forcing the color content of the piece into a single square that represents the average color of the entire work, you would likely get grey. I don’t mind this tendency in what I do; in fact, it’s something that’s fun to find ways to push against.

For example, in these sanded works like the one above I actually use quite a range of color as I build up the layers of paint. If you ever hold one of these paintings in your hands, you can flip it over and look through the clear plexiglass (the substrate I use to make these paintings) and see a record in reverse of how I put the painting together. There is almost no resemblance between what you see on back and what you see on the front; that is part of the adventure in making these.

But, because all these different colors are layered, the top color is obviously dominant, and the thicker the coat the more dominant it is, even if you spend all day sanding it. In this way, I can use Technique to fight against Habit, in this case, my tendency to throw a rainbow at every painting. In these sanded paintings, the rainbow is still there, but buried, and I dig and scrape until I reveal those pieces of the spectrum that contribute to a nice looking picture.

So, even though I’ve used all kinds of color to generate this painting, it’s basically a blue monochrome with noise in it. The effect is one that really works for me because my eyes–enjoying the wash of blue, darting around with the different brush marks, picking up bits of maroon, taupe, black, and so on–get a lot out of these 140 square inches of acrylic.

8 New Studies, and How They Get Here

Study 1, September 2011, Jim PublicStudy 2, September 2011, Jim PublicStudy 3, September 2011, Jim PublicStudy 4, September 2011, Jim PublicStudy 5, September 2011, Jim PublicStudy 6, September 2011, Jim PublicStudy 7, September 2011, Jim PublicStudy 8, September 2011, Jim Public

Vernon Fisher told us undergraduates at UNT that an artist is a problem-maker. We go into the studio with an intention to make something, and in the process of making that thing, we encounter problems that we have to solve to get us where we want to be. Really, we create the problems, confront them, and in working through them, we create more problems. A working artist isn’t likely to run out of directions in the studio, because each piece conjures up problems that spiral outward into what becomes new pieces of artwork, and, of course, new problems.

In this way, and in so many others, the conventional wisdom that artists and scientists dwell in opposite realms–right v. left brain, passion v. reason, etc.–is just bogus. We artists and scientists love the chase. We love a good question: it gives us the occasion to focus our powers of observation and channel our experiences into the pursuit of Truth and Beauty, which is the dual prize artists and scientists seek, and is, as the Romantics tell us, a singularity.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

That’s what Keats says, and he’s right. In our hunger for the experience of Truth and Beauty, we artists and scientists look closely at the world and try to find new places where they might reveal themselves to us. It’s like a drug addiction, except that both seeking and obtaining the fix actually make life better.

This centrifugal cycle of problems begetting problems in the studio or lab, all in pursuit of the elusive, noble duo of Beauty and Truth, this is the grandiose version of how such paintings as the eight above get here. I have so much to figure out about what happens when I try different approaches to my studio techniques, so I lay out some panels, open some paint, and start working through and creating more problems. When the result looks good, I make it available to you; and, when it looks bad (which happens a lot!) I just paint over it and start the chase again. An art studio is just a science lab with more paint.

A Quest for Camelot: September Newsletter

110913 jim public camelot newsletter september 2011

The Camelot project is a work in progress, and I’ve already had fun watching it shift and develop in real time since its inception this past summer. Having knocked on one or two dozen doors, not entirely as prepared or tailored as I had intended to be, I’ve decided that a monthly newsletter may be the way to formalize what I’m doing. The newsletter allows me to give something to my neighbors each time I visit; I like this because it lends a sense of purpose to what has started to feel a little like loitering. It also lets me communicate with people who may not be comfortable standing on their porches and chit-chatting with the local idiot, and it’s something I can leave behind when I knock and no one answers.

Each newsletter will feature some of the latest neighbor drawings. My hope is that those who are skeptical of my intentions, after seeing monthly renderings of people in the community, will come around and let me draw them, too. I feel that the newsletter, its contents and its monthly regularity, will build just a little sense of community around here. Even if it is short-lived, even if it revolves only around this project, a little bit of community building is always a good thing. In my wildest fantasies (which are an uninterrupted torrent in my imagination) I foresee pot-lucks, neighborhood parades, barn-raisings, and the like, resulting from the Camelot project. But, even if nothing materializes beyond what I’m doing right now, I will be happy for the experience itself.

New Studies Coming In

110913 jim public studies september 2011

Can I just tell you how much I look forward to having a camera that doesn’t distort the edges of my rectangular artwork? It’s like my paintings have rung your doorbell and you look through the peep-hole to see a warped, circular version of an otherwise rectilinear piece of art. Someday, this nice-sized lens of my dreams will swing open that front door of yours and show you an image of the paintings that is closer to what your naked eye would see.

But cameras don’t buy themselves, nor does anything else for that matter. So the artist must make lots of stuff, exhibit it, and hoard his pennies; only then might he be able to spring for such studio equipment. And this is the time of year for making and for exhibiting! Though it’s 100 degrees today, and should be 106 tomorrow, last week was most pleasant; the cool snap allowed me to get into the Agora, my studio, give it a deep, autumn cleaning, and make some new artwork.

Just for fun, and because I’m told that people who frequent blogs like lots of pictures, here are some photos of that fine day. It didn’t break 90 degrees! As you look them over, imagine M.I.A. jamming in the background and think of the series of photos as a montage sequence in a film in which the heroes are getting down to business. That’s what it felt like. My daughter JPG was spying on me during the cleaning, so we have her to thank for all the candids.

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Cue M.I.A.. The song I had on repeat that day was the “Paper Planes” remix from Slumdog Millionaire, with the funk beat and 80’s synth.

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Fade out music. I have a warm sense of accomplishment in my belly. Or that’s the Shiner. Probably both.

110913 jim public studio after

Run Big Monkey, at Home

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I think I said this before, but Run Big Monkey hangs on the one large wall we have in the house. There is in fact a newer painting that is 1″ longer than Monkey in each dimension, making it the current largest Jim Public piece; but, as I finished the larger painting after Monkey had already claimed the one spot where it would fit, it currently resides against a wall out in the studio. I have four more large paintings like these coming up in my studio queue: where am I going to put them? I’ll worry about making them first.

Monkey has good company in Skull Platter, 2004, by Sean Slattery. JPS–shown above reclining with a noisy toy army tank–referred for a while to Sean’s painting as Ba Ba Boo Boo during the early part of this 3rd year. We don’t know how he came up with that nickname, but we haven’t heard it in several months. During that time he had mixed feelings about Ba Ba Boo Boo, some days laughing at his silliness, other days recoiling from him with a furrowed toddler brow. Now that JPS has a noisy toy army tank, perhaps no longer feels threatened.

A Proclamation

11090711 kids homeless

I love being a dad. It’s the most rewarding job I’ll ever have. I love my kids. (That’s a photo of them, on the morning after a gorgeous cold front came in, having decided that when the weather gets cool, the cool pretend to be homeless.)

That’s the proclamation (minus the parentheses). And it may be obvious, but because this kind of thing is rarely said by me or by the parents in my social group I proclaim it now. My experience of fatherhood has been incredible, though I’m not in the habit of thinking about how good it really is. But something happened over the weekend that got me thinking about why some parents, like myself, would undersell the experience of parenthood.

I saw a story called “Parenthood Got You Down?”, answered, “Yes, sometimes,” and read the article. The author states, “It’s really hard, being a parent. At times, it’s crushing. But you’re never allowed to say this.” I read on and, recognizing such sentiments as exhaustion and frustration, figured I’d post a link on Facebook, adding my own comment, “At some level we all know that parenthood is not all roses, but it’s always good to hear it from someone else.”

Soon thereafter a friend did something that flies in the face of Facebook protocol: she offered a different point of view. And it was a welcome one. She said that she didn’t like the tone of the article, that it should be evident that parenthood is driving her crazy, and that she chooses to focus on the love and magic that her kids have added to her life. Her words didn’t make an immediate impact, but I thought about them all day and have ever since.

In the broad culture of parenthood there is one contingency that exerts a pressure on parents not to speak of their hardships, but there is another group that exerts an inverse pressure not to speak of their joys. The NPR reporter seems to be coming from the first world, the realm governed by what Betty Friedan might have called the Parental Mystique, that nagging feeling of empty isolation that parents feel as they strive to show others that all they want is to be great parents and that making baby food and attending play-dates are sufficiently fulfilling activities for an adult. This world would be the one in which a parent may feel that he’s not allowed to speak of the dark side of parenting.

But I inhabit the other realm, in which an ironic, wry detachment characterizes the way we show the world that we’re a different kind of parent. I consort mostly with folks who come from a fine or liberal arts background. We are a classically liberal-minded lot, eager to live in way that demonstrates our immersion in forms of culture that the American middle class in general doesn’t encounter. We attend art openings; we’ve seen A Doll’s House; we’ve heard of Proust. We are therefore loathe to be seen as conventional, and nothing is more conventional than becoming a parent. We mammals are expected to do just two things between birth and death: we have sex and have babies. We artist-types can get away with the former, but then to go and procreate just as we are expected to? How bourgeois! What’s next? St. John’s Bay, Dockers, and your cell phone on a belt clip?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOKuSQIJlog&w=450&h=277]

(Btw, that video is the best thing ever made by an evangelical Oklahoma mega-church.) So, to speak for myself, I have erred on the side of appearing not to care one way or another that I’m a parent, as if it’s just one of my several responsibilities in life that I take in stride. I hang around with a lot of artists, most of whom have no kids, and I’ve made every effort to blend in by downplaying the enormous amount of love that fatherhood has added to my life. But, as an artist, my domains are Truth and Beauty. T & B don’t distinguish between what is good or bad, but simply what is and isn’t, so if I don’t acknowledge the broad reality of parenthood as both difficult and magical then I am falling short of my duty as an artist. Parenthood is the world’s biggest half-full, half-empty glass: the potential for despair or elation is as great as life has to offer, and a glass this huge, even if only half-full, offers more than a lifetime’s worth of rejuvenating waters.

I call on parents to speak openly about the best and the worst, and everything between, of their experiences. It’s okay to feel wretched or euphoric about being a mom or a dad. The pressures we feel to appear to be a certain kind of parent are the product of internal forces, not external ones. Under- or over-selling parenthood does the noble vocation a disservice. Maybe, if more artist-parents were honest with childless artists about how magical parenthood is, more artists would have kids and it would be easier for me to find such people to hang out with! Not that the world needs more kids; but it could always use more love.

Momentousness

11090711 jps backpack

Here I lounge, 45 minutes from our house in Garland, just down the road from the preschool where JPS is at this moment attending his first day as a student in a classroom. He has been absolutely stoked about the coming of this day. Since this time last year, when he had to endure sending his sister off to 2nd grade while he remained buckled in his seat, and when he walked the halls of her elementary school holding my hand and watching kids who were just a little bigger than he is walking in lines, carrying backpacks and lunchboxes, he’s been ready for his first day of school.

When we officially enrolled him at this school, which specializes in preparing hearing-impaired kids for the specific challenges they’ll face when they start kindergarten in a mainstream classroom, his mom took him on his first school-supply shopping trip, where he picked out the race car backpack above. He has packed and unpacked it, worn it in and out of the house, and requested numerous photo ops since he came into possession of it two weeks ago. This morning, the backpack hangs on a hook in a cubby with his name taped to it.

He has done his best to prepare himself for this day. His favorite game over the last year has been School, which is played on his bedroom floor, with his stuffed animals as classmates. Most days, in addition to pretending that his parent is a teacher and he’s the student, he also pretends to be a Jedi, a Marvel Comics hero, or a friend from Sesame Street, while the parent/teacher follows suit. We’re hoping he’s not too dismayed today when his teacher addresses him by his name.

JPW and I are having a strange moment of togetherness. Our kids are productively occupied elsewhere. This doesn’t happen to us. So, we just ate a morning snack at a diner, and now we’re nestled in a corner of the library around the corner from JPS’s school. Foggy impressions are stirring in my memory of a life I once lived that may have produced in me the calm ease that I am now feeling. Naturally, the need to be productive has brought me to this keyboard; but, the fact that I have not been needed by a small person in the last two hours is such a foreign sensation that I guess I’m at a loss. Soon, I hope to enjoy this serene state of mind without a feeling guilt or unease that I’m neglecting someone. Of course, I’m not; at their ages, the kids are better off in a classroom with peers than they are, sadly, with us all day long. Sadly? What am I saying? Don’t I crave the freedom to move and think without constant interruptions assailing me like the attention-destroying sirens and riveting guns that bombard George Bergeron’s ears in the Vonnegut short story?

Or have I become even more of a love-junkie than I was before parenthood?

Run Big Monkey, 2010

Run Big Monkey, 2010, James Hough

As I was painting and sanding in turn, trying to build up a good-looking surface on this painting, I eventually started to see the image of a baboon running across the top of the canvas. Normally I don’t go seeking imagery in abstract artwork, especially my own; usually it’s impressions, visual and emotional, that I’m seeking. But, these paintings emerge through a process a lot like excavation, so when I see in them things that look like symbols or archetypes, it’s fitting to go with it and see if the image and the paint work together in the end. The image and the paint both feel primal, so I think it works.

Run Big Monkey is a big painting that took a lot of elbow grease. A friend of mine has this interesting idea that maybe I should set my prices by adding up the labor hours and multiplying that number by an hourly wage, which is an elegant theory; I like how it demystifies the way we assign value to artwork, at least monetary value. Paintings like these, however, for all their size and complexity, would probably have too high a price tag with that method. It is a cool idea, though, charging by the hour. What do you think?

I made this painting on top of an old canvas from a series of nine paintings I did in 2005 for a big LA show at Patricia Faure Gallery, which has since passed away with its long-beloved owner Patty. Those paintings were labor-intensive themselves, though less so than Big Monkey. I had the same idea then about pricing my artwork as I do now: the lower the price, the more likely it is to sell. I talked to the gallery people about the price for the pieces. I wanted them to be $4000 each. They talked me up to $6500, using the argument, which sounded great at the time, that a gallery of Faure’s prestige has to maintain a certain baseline price level; in other words, the fact that my paintings had been chosen by that gallery made them more valuable right off the bat. By the time I arrived for the reception the price sheet showed that they were $8000 each. None of them sold. Now, I take my share of the responsibility for this: had I made them better, they would have had a better chance with collectors. But, had they been priced lower, they also would have had a better chance.

Running an art career on my own, as I am right now, I feel a nice sense of empowerment. I can set my prices as I deem appropriate. On the other hand, lacking the connections that a good gallery provides, I am much less likely to sell any of these larger paintings, even at the fraction of gallery market value that I have priced them at.

It’s an odd dilemma that I’m in. $4000 is a lot for most of us to spend on a painting, even at the large scale of Big Monkey. Yet $4000 is a suspiciously small amount for seasoned art collectors to spend on a painting like this. In either case, something seems fishy. In fact, sometimes I think the best move would be to double my prices across the board so that they seem more legit. This quest of mine to make serious contemporary art at a decent price may be doomed from the outset. Perhaps if I can eventually persuade an art dealer to lend them some legitimacy and partner with me, then things will go more smoothly. In the meantime, I’ll just keep working toward my goal and try to make interesting things happen.

Run Big Monkey is acrylic on canvas, 87″ x 67.″ It resides in our living room, on the only wall that can hold it. Because it’s so big the bottom foot and a half is obscured by the loveseat in front of it, so it feels like it’s part of the household, vying for its own space like everything else in here.

It’s Henna

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A few weeks ago as summer vacation was coming to an end I produced my most recent voluntary public art commission. My niece had returned from a trip to Hawaii with a small tube of smelly green goo–a lot like a fine pesto, really–for making henna tattoos. She had run out of time in Hawaii to have the tattoo done by an experienced henna artist, so, knowing that her artist-uncle was coming to visit her in August, she brought home the means for me to give her the tattoo myself.

Henna tattoos last 2-3 weeks, so their impermanence was reassuring to me, having never pigmented someone’s skin with more than a Sharpee, which would have been back in high school. I did an image search for “henna” to get a grasp on the kinds of decorative motifs common to the practice and made a small test tat on my left ankle to get a feel for it. I accidentally smudged it with my other foot after ten minutes, but the darned thing is still visible down there, three weeks later.

I present the photos above in the order that I made the tattoos. My wife, being the dutiful guinea pig, got the first and most restrained design, and then they got more involved as I gained confidence. It was a relaxing way to spend a beautiful Utah afternoon with my really very wonderful in-laws.

I’m told you can get like $50 a piece for doing these! Maybe a sketch-portrait/henna stand is in order. I always feel like a schmuck when I go long stretches between selling my artwork while other folks are squeezing stinky goo on paying customers all day long. Ah, the artist’s life.

Jormungand at Home

110903 jormungand at home

Here is Jormungand Releases His Tail in its current natural habitat, which is directly in my line of vision if I look across the room from my side of the bed. I give it a good look for a few moments maybe every other day; I miss it much of the time because I take off my glasses and switch off the light when I retire for the evening, my eyes settled into the bliss of blurry darkness that is so welcome after a day of constant seeing. When one’s job is to make stuff look good one is always seeking more good-looking stuff to learn from and, through the act of sustained looking, trying to figure out how the good-looking stuff looks so good, in case one can use it in the studio. So, nighttime for the bespectacled artist is a welcome respite, and as much as I admire Jormungand, it’s daily absence from my visual field for hours at a time renews my fondness for it.

Jormungand Releases His Tail, 2010

Jormungand Releases His Tail, 2010, James Hough

Last fall, while I was working on God’s Covenant at the Event Horizon, I was also at work on a painting similar in size and technique. I was looking a lot at the mid-to-late-20th century American painters Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston while I painted, seeking to be inspired and educated by these makers of beautiful messes. The particular Mitchell I studied over and over was a tiny reproduction of La Grande Vallée (1983) from an AbEx series of commemorative stamps (as seen below, bottom row, second from the left, between Motherwell and Gottlieb). The blues and yellows in that painting were all the more arresting and mysterious because of the small scale of the stamp; it was like looking at a glorious painting across a football field.

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The Guston I had in mind while I worked on the painting that ended up being Jormungand is called The Light (1964) from the collection of the Modern in Fort Worth. Like the Mitchell above, this painting is so much about vigorous, broad, wriggling brushwork, this time in grey and pink.

What happens when you look at a lot of art over a lot of years is you start to see how some people just know how to make things look good; this description, “one who makes things look good,” is for me the best definition of what an artist does. Of course, determining what looks good is a subjective process, and this is kind of the point. If we all liked the same stuff, or if we could apply objective criteria to a visual object to determine its “good-looking” grade, then making and looking at and talking about art wouldn’t be much fun. Because the experience of beauty is elusive and specific to the individual, the pursuit of beauty can make life an adventure. And, when two people stand before a giant, scribbled canvas by Guston or Mitchell, for example, they can draw on their memories and intuition, exercise their senses of taste and judgment, and come to know better their own and each other’s notions of truth and beauty, which I think is as worthy an experience as any.

And, the art doesn’t mind our scrutiny and judgment, because it’s inanimate, perched on the wall, exposed fully, intended for as much gazing as we have to give it. The arts in general provide the perfect outlet for our innately human compulsion to judge others in order to understand ourselves better. And it is an excellent antidote for the more pervasive and, I think, malignant forms of judgment we indulge in when we watch reality tv or skim the pages of glossy magazines, calling on our ideas of beauty and righteousness as we repudiate or extoll, depending on how much they confirm or subvert our individual visions for the way things and people ought to be, the images of real human beings before us. In this way, art, which is both amoral and inhuman, can make us more moral humans.

Mitchell and Guston just make things look good. Their individual senses of scale and color, the way they each handle paint, and everything else they bring to their canvases, despite their abstract messiness, makes them distinct and lovely. These two painters continue to give me a lot of material to work with in my own studio. Looking at Jormungand now, you would hardly think that it started as an homage to The Light, but a painting has to start somewhere. As I built up layers of acrylic and sanded them down, transforming the surface slowly into what it ended up looking like, with the tans and blacks swirling up a wicked froth, it felt more and more Norse in character. And, having been watching the live simulcasts of the Met’s Ring cycle, I went in the direction of the epic (rather than the cosmic, as with Covenant) when I was titling the painting. In Norse myth, Jormungand is the world serpent who encircles the Earth and holds the conflicting universal forces in check by holding his tail in his mouth, making of himself a protective ring for our planet. It is said that when he one day lets go of his tail, the Norse version of Armageddon will begin. Which sounds wicked and fits the vibe I get from this painting.

Jormungand is acrylic on canvas, 45.25″ x 41.25.″ Like Covenant, it also lives in our bedroom, and I’m happy to report that I have yet to get tired of looking at it, which for me is a good sign that I’m on the right track in the studio. I’ve destroyed a lot of old artwork over the years as they age before my eyes and start to look stupid; I don’t foresee that happening with these paintings.

Walking Through Camelot

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It’s still terribly hot here in the Camelot neighborhood, and forecasts of cooler temperatures and rain have been steadily warming up and drying out. September in Garland is much like August except school is in full swing, and, to the detriment of students and staff alike, on hot days like these the kids don’t go outside to run and scream for recess. It’s just too toasty.

I can report, in spite of the swelter, that I’ve made some small progress in the Camelot campaign. I’ve knocked on fifteen doors, and talked with ten neighbors. I’m working on the fourth drawing of the series. I mailed my friend Erin’s drawing over to Fort Worth a few days ago, after all the botched attempts to get close to a likeness; when she receives it I’ll post the image.

I knocked on my first door that said, “No Soliciting. Day Sleeper,” in larger-than-ordinary lettering, right there on the door. It was just after 7pm, still light outside but the lowering sun was providing enough shade that we could hop scotch from patch to patch and feel okay. I say “we”: I brought the kids along. Although I didn’t know the “No Soliciting” house was coming up, I felt less creepy and rude having them there with me. I could hear a tv inside the house as I read the warnings on my neighbor’s door, so I went ahead and rang. He was guarded as he opened the door, but the kids and their melting popsicles seemed to put him at ease.

We talked for a few minutes. He said that my request to come sometime and get a photo of him for the drawing was a bit forward of me and that he’d need to see examples of my work and think it over. And he’s right. What I intended to be a win-win for my neighbors–drawing a free picture of them–is also an imposition. Who lets a stranger, whom they’ve just met by answering the door, take a photo of them?

So, it looks like I will be stretching my timeline in this process of meeting, photographing, and drawing neighbors. When I mentioned to some friends in the neighborhood that I probably need to make a brief newsletter about my project and my intentions, they jumped on the idea and said it would be a good occasion for a block party. If someone (myself) is willing to deliver fliers to all the homes in Camelot then we can announce the party and try to ensure that everyone is invited! In fact, two of my neighbors have suggested this, so we’re going to do it, probably in late October when it’s only in the 90s. I’m happy to report that some good for the community has already come out of this project!

Next, I’ll be drafting a short newsletter, explaining my intentions to meet and draw everyone in the neighborhood and make a book about the experience, featuring images of the drawings and some prose about how it all went down. And, we’ll be planning this block party, which is now less than two months away. I’ve never been to a block party before–what fun!