Story – An Artist’s Journey

56coveLa Jolla Cove

There are two journeys that await everyone the physical one and the one of the mind.

As a kid, I grew up in a privileged, beautiful, and bitter place. La Jolla is and was one of the wealthier towns in the world. It was made up of designer homes, coves with sleeping seals, beaches, cerulean skies, tennis courts, eucalyptus trees with their dusty-sticky smell, and earth crystals one could dig out of the hillsides. And it was populated by sophisticated and rich business people, models, housewives, and BMW’s. Alcohol and divorces flowed a little too freely, and the sun shined after the morning fog.

My grandparents were made up of a German adventurer and a free-spirited Canadian, and a Hollywood flapper and a cigarette executive; both sets lived in Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. There are rumors of a touch of insanity in the family, something about the phantom uncle that died in an institution. Another story is that my German grandfather traveled from Argentina to Canada and courted my 18-year old grandmother, brought her down to Los Angeles and then married her. The same grandmother had the complete set of the Time-Life Library of Art books, the book on Delacroix was my favorite. I would spend hours looking at those books in their Mid-Wilshere bungalow with its streaming southern light casting rays of light highlighting tiny dust particles making them look like stars.

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Delacroix, Chopin

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La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club

Everyone in my family played some tennis. My parents thought it was a good way for the five kids to keep busy, tired, and off the streets. I had a knack for it being quick and strategic. Lester Stoffen, 3-time Wimbledon doubles champion was the local tennis pro gave me lessons once every two weeks which my grandparents paid for; he taught integrated fundamentals. And I liked art. In sixth grade, another kid forgot his math book and the teacher, Mrs. Bowden, allowed him to do his art project instead. That day on the way home from school I threw my math book under a tree. The next day I told the teacher I lost my book. For weeks I did my art project instead of math. Sadly another kid found the book, brought it to class and Mrs. Bowden looked at me with a puzzled expression. She pulled me aside and told me “you are going to float through life and I am afraid that you will not amount to anything.” I guess she didn’t think that being one of the best tennis players in my age group in Southern California (in its heyday) or my passion for art was work. For the next decade, tennis and art were my daily projects.

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After winning my first tournament, boy’s ten and under.

(Growing up and even today I wish I never had to attend school, rather, like in the Reniassance, I would have jumped at the option to be an artist’s apprentice.)

I was too young (11-years old) to understand, and may never know the causes when I locked myself in the bathroom for 3 hours, laid down on the tiled floor and pressed my hands to the sides of my head, hoping to push the voices out of my head. There was an incessant inner voice repeatedly screaming “evil, evil, evil, evil is here.” I asked the voice where it was? Was it something inside or outside of me? What did I do wrong? Was I bad? I looked inside and couldn’t find anything deserving of such a horrible dark feeling. Another voice said, “no, you are not bad, you are a good.” Continuing to rack my brain for hours I came to the conclusion that whatever this dark matter was it was outside of me. I didn’t know if it was a person, a thing, or something in the atmosphere, but I was relieved to feel it certainly wasn’t me. In the future, I would be on the lookout for it.

Awakening and My Grandmother

I loved my Canadian grandmother very much, she worked hard and appreciated sports and painting. She loved Los Angeles and I never once heard her bitch. She was so wise that if she were directing us kids, we never knew we were being corrected. I didn’t know but only subconsciously felt that she was giving me the green light to be an artist. She saw the seed bud and watered it as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do.

Once while walking with her down a sidewalk lined with shops, we stopped at a bookstore’s window. Time stopped. There was a huge book with a painted portrait of a woman on the cover. The woman’s eyes were so gentle, thoughtful, with a quiet intensity almost if she were to cry. The shadows made out of space seemed to caress and move around her neck and delicately touch her earlobe. The cover of the book was a portal to a universe that opened up and pulled me inside. I lost my real life bearings, and all could feel was the energy of this beautiful person; it was like being in a dream of light currents. I shook my head and realized where I was and looked for grandmother. Looking over to my left I saw that she was two windows further and she glanced at me with an expression saying “you go on and keep looking dear.” Which is what I did until I had had my full of looking at the portrait.

I was turning 12-years old, and my grandmother gave me a heavy package when I tore off the wrapping it was that book!  It was The Complete Works of Rembrandt.

 

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Rembrandt, Hendrickje Stoffels (This is the first work I fell in love with. The shadows clothe her in mysterious space, the empathy in her eyes is palatable – so truthful and amazing that paint can be organized to communicate psychological depth).

 

From that moment on I studied Rembrandt every evening, and every evening I felt the same awe and wonder as when I first connected with him. This was also when I became dedicated to drawing and painting. I remember drawing a complicated nighttime interior of our living room with couches, tables, lamps, and a huge dark window. In the window, I also drew the olive tree outside as well as my reflection drawing the scene — a fun paradox in art. (The drawing has been lost). I also copied da Vinci drawings, Rembrandt paintings, and drew from my imagination and from life.

Some of the people of La Jolla were Europeans, and they had a second sense and respect for art and always gave a thoughtful eye when looking at my drawings – this gave me a feeling of visibility. But there were others who were advising me to become an accountant or to become a tennis player. Often I would hear “an art career is a fantasy, you will find out that reality doesn’t work that way, you will fail and have to join the real world.” My sister thought it would be good idea to aim for a tennis career and do art afterwards. But instinctually I knew that the more time I put into art now, at a young age, the faster I would master it.

In a way these naysayers were right. Art was a different world from reality. I didn’t know it at the time but what I was to reject was their interpretation of reality. Art for me was more real than their reality, it offered me a colorful, exciting path, while their path was ominous.

My poor older brother by four years wasn’t quite right. Before school, he asked me if I wanted to go an amusement park after school. I was bursting with excitement all day for this unexpected treat. After I had got home, he told me we were going to be picked up by a friend on the other side the hill. As we were walking on the dirt road with a 40′ drop into a ravine, he pushed me over the edge! It wasn’t a cliff, but the incline was steep, and there was no way to stop. I managed to keep my feet out ahead of me and by the time I reached the bottom I was a bloody pulp. It easily could have been a terrible accident if I had tumbled. I thought about his manipulation from exciting my enthusiasm to killing it. I would never fall for that trap again.

Transmission of Knowledge

As a teenager, I would visit museums and aimlessly walk through them. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, and I wasn’t there to listen to the tour guides telling me what to appreciate. Suddenly I would see a painting that stopped me cold in my tracks. It would have something mysterious about it. The longer I looked, the more it told me about its color harmonies, something authentic about life and light. After I would look at the painting for awhile, I would go up to see who painted it. The paintings I stopped at were from artists such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, Halls, Manet, Monet, and, of course, Rembrandt.

 

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Monet, Sunrise (Such a beautiful contrast between cool and warm colors to create light. The exceptional depth that feels natural. Interesting to note the greatest painters of light like Monet and Rembrandt also create great depth).

(Drawings and paintings of my pre-college years have been lost, they were in my family’s storage unit, it was not paid, and everything inside was repossessed).

It is subjective, but paintings speak to me, I literally hear them in my head. When I see a bad painting, it will confide in me: “Why did the artist run over me with a truck?” “Can’t they see that that color hurts me?” “Doesn’t my maker give a shit? Why do they thoughtlessly mark me up? “Don’t they understand they are taking me for granted?” I then tell the painting I am sorry that it had been so badly mistreated, we thank each other, and I move on. On the positive side, wonderful paintings would say: “Look at how wonderful that mark of color is, it has weight and energy and how well it gives a blush to the skin!” “Don’t you feel you can go on forever through this landscape and feel that when you get further into it, there will be another stunning vista around the corner?” “I know I have a huge nose, isn’t it magnificent!” “Don’t just stand in the same spot looking at me, go to the back of the other room, and look at me from that great distance! Now, slowly, gently come towards me, no, not so fast, slower, ah that’s it. Did you notice how well I hold my shape from any distance?”

In my first year of college, I took a class with American modernist Edgar Ewing. He was at the age of retirement, yet he had mischievous and joyful eyes. And he was always one step ahead of me, he knew the answer before I asked the question. There were two great lessons, one technical the other about what it means to be an artist. He knew how to create space on a flat 2-diminsional surface. The first correction he made on my painting, a simple mark of paint, blew me away. Inside I was screaming, “he gets it!” Spatial depth is one key to Rembrandt’s magic. In my art history class, the professor talked of Rembrandt as a great painter of light, if not the greatest. What she didn’t mention was the insane amount of depth that he creates in his paintings; it is the thing that pulls you into his universe. Could Rembrandt’s use of spatial depth also be the keys to creating light and the profound psychological depth we feel with his characters? As those questions were forming I already knew the answer which was “yes! Spatial depth is a huge player in the evolution of painting!”

The second thing I learned from Professor Ewing was to love your art making and never allow it to be compromised. On the first day of class, I was seventeen, he said: “Art is like making love.” That hit me like a ton of bricks, so simple. Over time I have been drawn to many types and kinds of artists, but the things that distinguish the best are their dedication to art, their love, and their empathy for the best of humanity.

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Ewing, Engine 58 (Wonderful manipulation of spatial depth plus a powerful composition and light).

 

 

Some of my college works 1974-77.

Living in Europe

I quit college after my 3rd year. One great teacher wasn’t enough to balance the mediocre ones. I was dissatisfied with the Los Angeles art scene; morons painting on surfboards as fine art should not be acknowledged. That summer my grandmother gave me some money to go to Europe with, my only obligation was to put a rose on Michelangelo’s tomb. While in Europe I had the option to stay in Holland. I had a summer job there (playing semi-pro tennis), and I could go to art school in the land of Rembrandt and Vermeer. It was a new world for me, new language, surprisingly strange and different culture.

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Rauschenberg, Hard Eight, 1975 (Typical decorative art from 1970’s California that bored the hell out of me. It is almost impossible to connect the dots between human values and abstract art without digressing into pure subjectivism).

I found solace in the Free Academy, they had no teachers just monitors, and they offered live models 6-days a week, 9-hours a day. I was in art study heaven. I spent two years there, drawing figures non-stop and then painting my own works after hours.

 

 

School and Studio Works, 1977-78 (Combining my studio and school time over these two years was about 4,600 hours and a couple of thousand drawings. I had sought a classical art education but couldn’t find the right artist/teacher. In hindsight I was incredibly lucky; classical art education is often so domineering it can destroy the artist within. For example, their rules for color theory once pounded into the student are virtually impossibe to break free of. At the Free Academy there was no instruction, just models, trying everything and kept all the effects I liked, giving me the exceptional freedom to learn and make things my own).

There I made a few friends that are still dear to me now. From the art school, one friend, Robert Mechielsen, was a very passionate person that spent half his time sculpting and the other half practicing architectural design. He cared about freedom of spirit and organic paths through architectural spaces. He would say that “if you are in a restaurant and you need to pee, and the architect can’t make it clear from the design where the bathrooms are, he is punishing you instead of making it effortless.”

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Robert Mechielsen, Hi’ilani EcoHouse. Rob feels that everything in a home should intuitively make sense plus inspire inviting pulls through the spaces.

I had one moment of profound weakness. It was 2 A.M. hail was beating against the windows, the painting, Woman in Blue, was not going well, and I did not see the solution. I was only 22-23 years old, and if I wanted to, I could be touring in 2nd rate tennis tournaments in the French Riviera. Intuitively I ran through the “regret” test; if I were 85 years old which would I regret more playing tennis or pursuing art? It took me about five seconds to answer that. I would be heartbroken if I didn’t give art everything I had. Woman in Blue was the result from sticking with it.

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Woman in Blue, 
oil on linen, lifesize (I got to incorporate my influences of Rembrandt and Vermeer and infuse them with my feeling of joy. I painted this in The Hague, Holland. For answers and inspiration, I visited Maurits House Museum many times. Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring was/is there with very few people and the setting was intimate and authentic).

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Maurits House in The Hauge, Holland. (Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring lives there, I was only living 15 minutes away).

While in Holland my sister Janet gave me Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to read; it was a metaphysical “pat on the back. ” There were two aspects that touched me deeply her heros handled the evil people by walking away and sticking to their vision. The other aspect was that the heroes overcame obstacles and the greater the challenge, the greater the feeling of accomplishment. While my adventure was already well underway, Rand inspired me to do whatever it takes to make artworks that would blow me away. I accepted there would be intense struggles and hard problems to solve. One issue that never interested me was to trade my art dedication for fame or money. Art is the thing, little else matters.

The artists I loved most were generally realists. So that was the next skill set I was after. Instead of taking days to make, a painting would take months. Painting a detailed ear is time-consuming.  Realism is really an issue about completing a form in painting, like completing the shape, tone, and color of one fingernail.

Though I have only made one sculpture, Woman’s Head, I love how beautifully sculpture can express the human figure. That aspect is something I wanted to incorporarte in my paintings.

Another important Dutch friend was Lynia Zaaijer, she inspired my best realist works, which you can see below. The bronze Woman’s Head, The Sculptor, A Writer and An Artist, and A Woman Wearing a Hat.

 

 

Transition towards more realistic works merging form, light, and space.

New York City

Manhattan at Night

Manhattan at Night, 1983, oil on linen, 36 x 58 inches. (When I lived in Staten Island and took the ferry to and from Manhattan this was the view. I used a daytime photo for a reference but all the light and tones were recreated from memory).

From Holland, I moved to New York City, lived in a building a hair’s breadth from being condemned. It was a lot of fun, I painted around the clock, but I also made friends with some amazing people. I got to the know the elites of the Objectivist world, I met artists, writers, and young entrepreneurs. One terrible disappointment was that no galleries would have me. Periodically I would show my portfolio to the directors, and get rejected. The bittersweet thing is they would offer advice on the direction my art should take, I would think “they don’t think doing their job is enough, they want to rob the artist their soul.” I would also go around to the famous galleries and see contemporary stuff like postmodern installations and I would feel so disgusted that I couldn’t paint for days. Not enough hot water to cleanse that shit off.

While in New York I was introduced to the music of Leontyne Price and Puccini. Both of them, like Rembrandt, blew me away on first hearing! They were to have tremendous influence on the direction my path would take. Whenever I felt down and felt the art life might be too tough I would think of Price. She is a black from Mississippi and rose to conquer the Opera stage from the 1950-1980’s. Armed with genius and a strong family but modest means she pursued her very best. Her advice to singers is “to love your voice,” which coincidentally is similar to my art professor’s advice noted above. What her voice sounds like to me is love from a very smart, beautiful, and passionate person who is first and foremost an artist.

Puccini is my favorite artist from any genre. A reoccurring theme of his is the sacredness of the soul, the heroes live to be true to themselves or die if they cannot. They take to flight on a carpet of sound that includes some of the most famous melodies of the 20th-century. From Puccini I could grasp the themes of the story lines, and I aimed to turn my paintings into visual operas.

Promethia was my first venture into narrative art, a thematically driven artwork with a proud protagonist against a stylized backdrop.

oil painting of a modern concept of a setting for a female nude sculpture.
Promethia – The Noble Soul has Reference for Itself
, oil on Belgian linen, 74 x 58 inches.

Undeterred I decided to go my own way and produce a one-man exhibition at the NoHo Gallery. Many of my friends helped with promotions, mailings, and introductions. And I filled the gallery space with my Dutch and recent works, such as Manhattan at Night and Promethia. The show had about 300 hundred people at the opening, one-third of the works sold. Friends came from Holland, California, and Boston to be there. After the opening had closed and we were all leaving for home, one friend, a writer, told me she had to have the Woman in Blue. She could make payments on it, and she told me that she was so moved by the event she had to honor me and what the show meant.

After the show I had a little money to live for about 8 months and I was ready to take everything I had learned and invest it all for my next painting, Pursuit.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

contemporary oil painting of a confrontation of a man and a women at night.Pursuit, oil on linen, 82 x 60 inches. (Pursuit was created in my Staten Island ground floor one-bedroom apartment in a depressed area. Drunks hung out on the corner, several of the laundrymat’s washing machines and dryers had “out of order” scratched out on enamel by knifes. The studio had one naked 100 watt bulb. I painting 16-hours a day for six months to finish this work).

Puccini, Rand, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Monet, and Price were my art heros they instantaneously inspired my soul. They represented the standard of what art is about. This wasn’t about them being famous, rather they filled my soul with love and color. It is as they entered my inner universe with magic wands and with flicks began lighting up dormant stars. My art challenge wasn’t to be better than them but to create works that lit me up.

This was also my biggest fear, that I might fail in that challenge. The reality of the budding artist lifestyle is not a bowl of cherries. The choice to slum it, to live in horrible conditions, to be desparate for sales to pay the rent is all very well and noble, but it is a miserable life. The one thing that makes it worthwhile is making really good art. What if I can’t make the works that I see in my mind’s eye? What if I simply do not have enough talent? Would it be worthwhile to live this way without achiving works that rocked my world? Authentically, I would have no trouble quiting art and I could use the things I learned to be a professor, or art director. So I set out to create the most ambitious work I could imagine, which would also be a summation of all my knowlege.

 To be continued …

 

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