1999 Satisfying the Soul: An Interview with Michael Newberry

This interview was conducted by Susan McCloskey, was an Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College, has published essays on Marlowe, Shakespeare, Webster, and Congreve.

Reprinted from Navigator, Volume 2, Number 12, 1999.

Michael Newberry has exhibited his paintings in major galleries in the United States and Europe. He was recently the subject of CNN’s “The Arts Program,” broadcast throughout the world. He has taught at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and has been a popular lecturer at the 1998 and 1999 summer seminars of IOS. He now lives on the island of Rhodes, in Greece.

Michael Newberry, circa 1999
Michael Newberry, circa 1999

Navigator: How did you discover your talent?

Newberry: In college I discovered that I could paint, draw, and sculpt easily. Any project I had in mind I could go about making, and the finished pieces were more exciting for me than the mental picture I had had. I loved the feeling of making the art, and I loved the results. As a teenager, I didn’t wonder whether I was I talented or not. Making art was like making sand castles. The time simply flew.

Newberry, Fifi, 1975, oil on canvas, 48x48"
Newberry, Fifi, 1975, oil on canvas, 48×48″ A painting I made in my 2nd year of Fine Art Studies, as a 19-year-old, and I painted it on my own time outside of school.

Navigator: What you describe is a pleasure in the doing of the work—a pleasure so satisfying that the work seems like play. When you studied art in your studio classes, did this feeling continue? Or did the mastery of your craft take long, hard, sustained work and study?

Newberry: The answer to both questions is “yes” and “simultaneously.” In most ways, it’s the same now. I try new things, different challenges. Can I paint a foot kicked out towards my face? Can I paint the light from the windows as it is filtered through the mosquito net? These are actually sub-issues, not the main ideas of the works, but they are part of the process. I enjoy the “Can I do it?” challenge.

Navigator: What does it take for a talented person to become a real artist?

Newberry: Let me give you a roundabout answer first. Some years ago I met a person who was a licensed architect, but she was working at some other job. She told me that she wasn’t an architect because she wasn’t pretentious enough to show people how they should live. Does that give you a clue about how complicated issues about art can be? Obviously she knew how to build, how to design structures, but how to create a living environment was too much for her. So it takes a confidence that one’s art matters.

To give you a direct answer, I would say if your passion to create outweighs your obstacles, you’ve arrived as an artist.

If your passion to create outweighs your obstacles, you’ve arrived as an artist.

MN

Navigator: At what point in your life did you decide to build your life around your talent?

Newberry: When I was twenty, I faced an excruciating dilemma: to be an artist or a professional tennis player. In tennis, I was in the final eight of US National Championships, I played third and fourth position on my university team the year we won the N.C.A.A. championship, and my sister was ranked top twenty in the world. I knew if I continued in tennis I could make a good living and travel the world as a professional. But in comparing my choices, I felt a lack of magic in my skills as a tennis player. I had some technical weaknesses. No matter how hard I worked on correcting them, the results were less than satisfying. In art, by contrast, it seemed the opposite. Every challenge I undertook gave me satisfying results.

Newberry, self portrait, 1977, ink, Frankfurt
Newberry, Self-Portrait 1977, ink, Frankfurt. I drew this the day when I chose a career path of an artist.

The clincher was contemplating what kind of life I would have as an old man. In sports the height of your career is from your mid-twenties to, perhaps, your mid-thirties. As an artist, by contrast, I could be making my most fantastic work at eighty. This thought made my decision to be an artist. I also knew that I needed to learn a great deal to be the kind of artist I wanted to be and that I would never reach that vision if I gave tennis ten-to-fifteen years of my youth and then tried to become an artist. It’s much easier to learn and automatize skills while you are young.

As an artist … I could be making my most fantastic work at eighty.

MN

Navigator: Let me phrase the question in a different way. When did you know that you are an artist, and when was it clear to you that you’d never be happy as, say, a computer programmer or an insurance salesman?

Newberry: There was a later point in my decision to continue as an artist. Up to my mid-twenties all the works I made were like tests: Could I paint two people in one composition? Could I make the colors more intense? Could I make the objects more realistic? But I hadn’t reached the point of maturity, where my art was a complete expression of my soul. I wanted to move beyond technical problems to express in paint what I consider the most important moments in one’s life. At that time I was living in a slum of Staten Island, and in low emotional moments I would think of other places I could be playing on red clay in the south of France, or making good money giving tennis lessons, or studying to be a chef (I love cooking) and opening a restaurant with friends! At this point, I decided to give myself a few years more of painting, to test myself, and see if I could paint a painting that satisfied my soul. And if I could reach that point, I would be willing to endure the poverty that inevitably accompanies being an artist.

Newberry, Pursuit, 1994, oil on linen
Newberry, Pursuit, 1994, oil on linen

The painting Pursuit was the result of this period. After its completion I realized that I had a talent not to be wasted and that I had to act accordingly.

Navigator: I recall seeing that painting when you displayed it at the Jefferson School in 1985. I remember gasping when I looked at it, and I suspect my response is shared by most women, and probably men, who have seen the painting. What did you call on to capture the disconcerting mix of excitement and fear that the painting represents?

Newberry: This painting’s concept came from speculating: What does the pursuit of an ultimate value feel like? What is the emotional feeling of being three yards away from the top of Everest? To be walking down the aisle for your wedding? To be two games away from winning Wimbledon? What does “love at first sight” feel like? I didn’t want to paint a man or woman climbing a mountain, or a tennis player, or a wedding ceremony, or a date at a restaurant, but I did want to paint the concept of love at first sight in a less-than-conducive environment.

I am pleased you call it a “disconcerting mix of excitement and fear.” Accomplishing big dreams is not “a walk in the park”; doing so is scary and very exciting . . . and disconcerting.

I know that many people feel very uncomfortable with that painting, seeing it as a promotion of rape. But I think they’re afraid of actually being “out on a ledge,” of realizing their utmost potential. It seems safer to lose, to be a spectator of life from the living room, than to feel the rush of being “out there.” Incidentally, many people absolutely love that painting.

Pursuit marked my transformation of becoming the artist I wanted to be.

Navigator: Have you sold Pursuit?

Newberry: Yes, it’s in Norway now.

Navigator: Is it difficult for you to sell a painting that has succeeded in capturing a piece of your soul? Do you ever wonder about the “after-life” of your paintings?

Newberry: When I was in college, a buddy of mine had bought one of my paintings. When I went to his house, I saw it up on the mantel of the fireplace, and I felt honored. I saw the painting freshly, as if I hadn’t made it, and I liked what I saw. I realized that this was an added pleasure of painting, to see it on its own. It’s also true that the process as an artist is to bring the painting into existence and then an audience or a collector completes the communication.

The process as an artist is to bring the painting into existence and then an audience or a collector completes the communication.

MN

Navigator: At what point in your life did you discover Objectivism?

Newberry: I always had an interest in philosophy, as freshman in college a philosophy professor, Kevin Robb, allowed me to take his senior course, Pre-Socratic Thought. I continued to have an interest in philosophical and psychological questions: What was so important about art? Why did people around me act the way they do? I had stored questions from my youth about mixed feelings connected with my family life. I had a vague attraction to principles, and I knew money wasn’t the answer to life. Perhaps it’s artistic exaggeration, but throughout my childhood I felt there were some heroes and heroines around me. I also had a vague but intense sense that my immediate surroundings were imbued with evil. At this point my sister, Janet, gave me Atlas Shrugged to read. There are too many impressions to recite about my reaction to Atlas Shrugged at that time, but two things stand out: the momentum of the work and the insightfulness of the characters. The momentum excited my emotions, and detailed studies of the characters and situations resolved many questions I had about human interrelationships. Reading the novel was a revelatory experience for me.

Navigator: Can you be more specific about the questions that reading the novel resolved for you? I want to press you on this point because many Objectivists report a similar experience of the novel. I’d like to know in more detail how Atlas Shrugged clarified or confirmed the world-view of a young man who had just decided to make rendering his world-view on canvas a career and a way of living.

Newberry: Ah, to be specific … Here is one example: [I opted to delete this too personal experience in the original interview, suffice to say my elder brother was a bully] … I was bruised, badly scraped-up, and quite bloody—that was my gift from him. Though I was in tears and feeling crushed, a detached part of my mind wondered why—not a “why” thrown out to the universe, but about my brother. Why was he like that? Why did he do that to me?

I had no way to answer those questions then, but my question remained close to the forefront of my mind. Reading Atlas Shrugged showed me the evil I had already experienced, and more, the motivations of people who hate the good for being good.

As an adult now I can be more sympathetic to my brother, more understanding of his situation and his problems at the time, but only to a point.

Navigator: Has your interest in Rand’s ideas affected your work?

Newberry: The effect of Rand’s ideas on my work is more complex than you might imagine. I think the biggest effect on my work is that I work at all. The aesthetics of nihilism and subjectivism in the 20th Century is so pervasive that it touches or dominates every art school and museum in the world. The problem I had, early on, was that every teacher I had tried to convince me that meaning was silly, that form was nothing important, and that realism was an outdated and dead art form. That Rembrandt’s paintings felt alive to me was not going to help me through the subjectivity (proudly held) of the art world elite.

In contrast, Rand’s body of work has been like a symbolic pat on the back-a confirmation of my approach to art and life and an encouragement to continue. Her analysis of second-handers and manipulators in The Fountainhead—rather, her creation of Roark—was a great guide to the sort of problems I was to face in establishing myself as an artist. Her characterizations saved me from the anxiety and stupidity of entering juried shows, or of sending out expensive submissions to galleries, or of doing commissioned work. I’m often asked to do a commissioned portrait or project. If an artist wants to torture his soul, he has to look no further than accepting commissions. To surrender the choice of subject matter, or to hang on the acceptance of a client, is a hell I went through only once.

Navigator: I’ve always assumed that most artists make their livings by accepting commissions. What happened to make you decide not to follow that traditional route?

Newberry: Experience. When I was 19 I did a commissioned group portrait from a photograph. I really liked it, and when I showed it to the mother of the sitters, she was dissatisfied with one of the faces. She was instructing me about HER impressions. And for the life of me, I could not understand how to incorporate her vision as my own. I mean, she knew the children as their mother. I only knew them through a photograph. Somehow I understood I could only make what I want, not be a tool for other people’s visions.

This observation [about not accepting commissions] might seem egocentric to some people, especially in the service industries, but there is a very practical approach to being an artist.

Navigator: What is that approach? Because you’ve mentioned Roark, I’m expecting a principled “how-to-be-an artist-in-a-market-economy” response. What are you thinking of when you mention “Roark” and a “practical approach” in the same response?

Newberry: Oh, I don’t mean “practical” in financial terms. I mean practicality on a much deeper level, the preservation of one’s soul or identity. From this place, being an artist is a blast—I simply cannot imagine what the introspective anxieties are for an artist who does cartwheels for clients.

Navigator: What is your sense of the artist’s role?

Newberry: An artist is the closest thing we have to the concept of God—someone who re-creates the universe and makes humanity in his own image. Incidentally, this concept is handy when you go to contemporary art exhibits. What you see in the artworks is the artist’s vision of the universe. If you’re staring at a tar-black painting, you could of course think about the shape of the canvas, its size, how it would look as a design element in a bold interior. But if you think of the artist as a god, you quickly realizes that the universe the artist is holding out for you to contemplate is empty of thought, emotion, and entities.

Navigator: I can imagine that Objectivism has had some influence on the subjects you choose—one look at your renderings of the human body would tell me so—but has the influence worked in other ways, too? I know this is an impossibly broad question, but I want to ask it just that way. Narrow it down as you please.

Newberry: Probably the most significant influence of Objectivism on my work is the concept of integration. Many artists deal with only some fundamental attributes of painting—say, color harmony or flat graphic design. But from my study of Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Rand, I concluded that I needed to master essential attributes of painting, such as human anatomy, composition (the arrangement of objects within the limits of the canvas size), color harmony, form, and spatial depth. Related, though separate, is the choice of the subject matter. And then one is off on a journey of putting all these aspects together into an integrated whole. At some point this journey is a mind-boggling experience, like closing a too tight plastic lid on a container. You push down on one side and the opposite side pops open. But when all the elements of a composition come together, it is a fantastic experience.

Another aspect is the influence of Rand the passionate artist. I remember some fantastic moments of living in New York, painting continuously, and devouring Rand’s fiction. Her use of cruel injustice contrasted with exaltation, as in Dagny’s flight sequence, charged all my energies and I easily focused them towards my art.

Navigator: Your responses make clear that Rand was an influence on your decision to be an artist and to be the kind of artist you are-trend-bucking, independent, commission-scorning, etc. But I’ve always sensed with you that “influence” is the right word, that the driving force of what makes you want to paint comes from yourself alone. Is that perception accurate? Is there a point at which “influence” ends and Michael quite happily begins?

Newberry: Yes! Art can have the amazing power to make people feel. In many cases their responses to art can be stronger emotionally than their responses to their personal lives. People can experience the passion of life-or-death issues in opera, or the driving exaltation of Atlas Shrugged, but in reality they rarely get to feel that level of intensity. For me, the artworks of Rand, Michelangelo, and Puccini are alive. But for an artist to use these feelings and responses as a starting point of creativity is a complete waste of time. It’s spiritual copying. And when artists emulate other artists, their work becomes a shadow, without passion or genuine perceptions. No matter how much I respond to Rand’s work, to work with that response as a central motivation for my own images would reflect her sense of life, not my own. Artists are egocentric; working from the inside out. The key is to dig down deep inside myself, and find that spark, that passionate burn, and focus on that feeling, magnify it, and bring it out through paint. That’s the difference between artists who copy and those who are “real.”

The key is to dig down deep inside myself, and find that spark, that passionate burn, and focus on that feeling, magnify it, and bring it out through paint.

MN
Newberry, Mosquito Net, 1999, acrylic, 9x5"
Newberry, Mosquito Net, 1999, acrylic, 9×5″

Navigator: How do you decide what to paint? Could you tell me, for instance, why your need to produce a great deal of new work for your Italian show led you to choose your house as a subject? Was it merely a matter of convenience-you had little time and your house was right there, waiting for you to notice it-or did something happen that suddenly made your house seem the ideal subject? I’m interested here in anything you can tell me about your creative process.

Newberry: In mid-May 1999 I got a call from a curator in Rome asking me if I could put on a solo exhibit there. He explained the size of the gallery (about four hundred square feet, a small space), and other details, and then asked if I could be ready in four weeks! “Of course” was my answer. Over a year before this invitation, I had been thinking of making drawings or paintings of my house in Rhodes. It’s my first house as an adult. It has many rooms and a large studio with panoramic views of the historical town of Rhodes and of the Mediterranean. While taking breaks from painting my big pieces, I would sit out on the terrace drinking coffee and watch how the Greek light smacks itself up against the walls and intensifies the colors of the flowers and the sky. And I would think, “I will paint that sometime in the future.” So this exhibit was the perfect excuse to pause on the big works and focus on creating small works, akin to poems or preludes. I also wanted to experiment with acrylic paints, a medium I had not worked with since I was sixteen.

I did have a tinge of self-doubt about painting such simple subjects as squares of light wafting though my studio curtains, or the sitting room immersed in blue shadow-neither of which are great romantic themes. But I contrasted these doubts with my love for my home, the immediacy of the project, and my belief that the depiction of light is the zenith of a painter’s skill, and my self-doubt quickly disappeared.

Newberry, Curtains, 1999, acrylic, 9×5″
Newberry, Bedroom Lamp, 1999, acrylic, 9×5″
Newberry, Green-Shadowed Interior, 1999, acrylic, 9×5″

Navigator: Most of the paintings I’m familiar with are your big canvases. What attracts you to work on a large scale? Is this choice of large canvasses an expression of your Romantic sensibility?

Newberry: I remember seeing a painting in an art history book of Socrates drinking hemlock. When I saw it in life, I was shocked because it was not life-sized, as I had imagined; the people were small, and they looked like puppets. I vowed then to paint people life-sized after that. I do have some exceptions, but in general I feel “right” painting people life-sized or larger.

Navigator: A second follow-up question: What do you mean when you say that the depiction of light is the zenith of a painter’s skill? Those of us who love Impressionist paintings have a hunch about what you mean. Can you be more specific?

Newberry: Painting communicates directly with our sense of sight. And one essential element of seeing is light—we cannot see without it. But to recreate it in paint is like controlling fire. It can easily get out of control and destroy the shapes of the people or the atmosphere in the canvas. One has to be a master of many other elements, like color harmony and form, before one can depict light successfully.

Navigator: How do you know when a painting is finished?

Newberry: There are a few answers I can give you. The simplest one is that the work feels “right”.

Another is that I start a work with a particular “gut” feeling and begin painting. At one point all the forms or entities look correct and I feel towards the painting the same “gut” feeling that I started out with. For example, I recently made two paintings of my bedroom at night. I painted one of the paintings during a melodramatic storm, the other during a lovely spring night. What I was literally seeing-the doorway, the glow of the bedside lamp, its reflection on the wood floor-was the same for both paintings. But in painting them, I found that the atmospheres of the two contrasting evenings had a strong influence on my “gut” feeling. One of the paintings is painted with very dark turquoise blues and with very soft green highlights. The other has the colors of a freshly cut trunk of a tree. I don’t know if the examples are obvious, but the blue painting was painted during the storm, and I painted the one with cream and brown colors on the calm night. In both cases, I was painting realistically what I saw, but my mood was guiding all of the subtle choices.

A third partial answer is very technical. When I see things in reality and when I see the colors of paint on a canvas, I don’t so much see colors as I see the vibrations of the color and light-it’s kind of a super-sensitivity, like focusing your whole body on the “ring” of a piano. In painting I try to re-create the light vibrations I see in the world around me. To give you an example: You are seeing a woman lying on a couch wearing a orange terrycloth bathrobe. The orange-covered shoulder is the first object in your field of vision. The color will be intensely bright, but the color of the robe around her calf, much farther away, will be less intense, more transparent. What has happened is that the vibration of the orange color has changed. This is an observable phenomenon, involving the light source, entities, and our sense of sight. My theory is that when the color vibrations are in harmony (that is, the different colors look good together), and when the vibrations mold the form of the entities, the painting is finished.

Navigator: I always enjoy hearing you speak about the technical aspects of your work. Have you ever considered teaching? Have you worked with younger painters to help them learn their craft?

Newberry: I have taught privately, and at the Otis Institute in L.A. for four years, but only one day a week. That’s Otis’s brilliant policy. They want to have working artists with real experience teaching, instead of full-time teachers. Teaching is something I enjoy, but only in small doses. It can be emotionally draining. I once had an extremely talented student who was living in her car. I would take home my students’ problems and they would mess up my creativity.

In the past I did some work with young apprentices, they had to help with studio chores in exchange for aesthetic knowledge. I also created a policy, though, of working with them for only a year and a half. Then I pushed them out of the nest to make their own way. The policy creates respect and eliminates dependence.

Navigator: Many people perceive artists as people who don’t quite operate as “normal” people do, who are touched by a kind of divine fire that makes it difficult for them to articulate what they do. You’re unusual in seizing opportunities to discuss your art and art in general in public, intellectual forums, such as the IOS summer seminar. Tell me about the intellectual dimension of your artistic practice-what it is that motivates you to take on the challenge not just of making art but of theorizing about its making and meaning?

Newberry: One part of the answer is a kind of innocence. I love painting. The other part is that I enjoy understanding what I am making, why I am making it, and what other artists are doing and why.

My sensibility and my mind have been thoroughly bombarded by the insanity of most of the “high” points of twentieth-century art. Here’s a typical example: There is an artist who had a museum exhibition in London. He needed to fill a huge space with artworks, and had made nothing until nine days before the exhibit. He began by going to junkyards to find or buy the materials, he then assembled the trash he had found, and he made enough “sculptures” to fill the museum space. He commented that that was an exhausting experience.

How is this exhibit possible? Why is it considered important work? What is the artist expressing? Why are the values that I see in artists of the past, and why is my own vision, discarded as being inferior? One can pick up any international art magazine and read through it, looking for answers about the value of the artists they are reviewing. You’ll find that the reviewers do not critique the actual works. They will talk about historical context, the influence of other artists, drop names, and often mention the mediums used. But I have yet to read a contemporary critique of the artist’s theme and how well it is expressed through the artwork alone. Why is contemporary art criticism as vague and meaningless as the artworks it covers?

Rand gave me a clue when she commented that philosophy is the blueprint for cultural phenomena. The answers are to be found not by looking at these works or reading the reviews, but in reading philosophers’ writings about art. Part of me must be a masochist, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading Kant’s aesthetics. The enjoyment comes from the discovery that Kant’s aesthetics is at the root of every mid- to late-twentieth-century deviation in art. I would sum up some of Kant’s points in this way: “A genius has no idea of what he is doing.” “Art criticism is subjective.” “The senses are inadmissible.” “The sublime is formless.” “The sublime violates one’s sense of understanding.” He goes on and on. In reading Kant one can simply check off the propositions that have obviously led to the state of art today.

Out of respect and love for my work, for that of past masters, and for the potential greats, I have chosen to shine light on absurdities and on the sublime.

MN

If we were in the middle period of a new renaissance, I probably wouldn’t give a hoot what was going on intellectually; I wouldn’t have to. But out of respect and love for my work, for that of past masters, and for the potential greats, I have chosen to shine light on absurdities and on the sublime. Unfortunately, that job cannot be done by paint alone; it must be explicit; it must be done ideologically.

Navigator: What is involved for you in making a living as an artist? That is, what does it take, besides a great deal of talent, to keep painting and still pay the rent?

Newberry: In college, an old and wise professor, Edgar Ewing, told us that artists must never, never compromise their work. He meant that we shouldn’t use our art skills for commercial work. Instead, we should get a part-time job unrelated to art to pay the bills. Between age twenty and thirty, I worked at my tennis job part-time out to supplement my income.

In my early thirties, at some period of being broke, I had the choice to get my work sold or get a job. I read some books on the art of sales. In reacting to the books’ recommended approaches and rules, I thought that they were either hilariously absurd or disgustingly cheap. But out of all the information, I found two or three approaches that showed me how I had sabotaged sales and how I could apply the recommendations without cringing in embarrassment. Now, I simply try to give the work visibility and to present information about the work.

But there are some other issues, like the communicability of the work and the cultural climate, that influence an artist’s survival. I find the issue of art’s communication very interesting; it’s as close to a mystical phenomenon as I have ever experienced. For instance, why should anyone ever buy a painting? Most collectors are not terribly articulate when comes to the reasons for their needing the work or even hating a work. And this process can sometimes be stressful and test the limits of my confidence. For instance, the man who invited me for the exhibit in Rome (a big show of support for my work) positively hated one of the paintings I had brought. He could not fathom why I had included it. It’s a self-portrait in an atmosphere of red tones. At the opening reception, a friend of his told him that the red painting was obviously the best painting in the exhibit! And she would have to look into her finances, because she wanted it. The moral of this story is that artists need to feel proud of their work. This pride will help them put other people’s judgments in perspective and protect them from swinging like starving cats from one handout to another.

The moral of this story is that artists need to feel proud of their work. This pride will help them put other people’s judgments in perspective and protect them from swinging like starving cats from one handout to another.

MN

For cultural acceptance, I am focusing for the long term. Almost all my decisions about exhibiting, lecturing on aesthetics, and writing art criticism are guided by the desire to increase my reputation and show in museums. Museum exhibitions will have all kinds of positive results, including financial gain. Incidentally, the two exhibitions I had in Greece, at Athens College and in Rhodes—the latter sponsored by the Ministry of Greek Culture—are ideal stepping stones to museum acceptance.

Navigator: What took you to Rhodes? What made you stay?

Newberry: Back in 1988, I spent three months touring the Greek Islands, making pastel drawings. I spent three weeks in Rhodes. I immediately fell in love with its colors and light. At this time I had dreams of arranging my life and finances to enable me to live there. The absence of crime, the crystal clear skies, and the low living expenses did not go by me unnoticed!

Newberry, Mykonos, 1988, pastel

Leading into 1994 I had very stressful years. My finances were irritatingly in the red, I had a fantastic studio in a grotesque and dangerous area of Los Angeles, and my friends seemed far from inspirational. I was living off my art work—I had sold some expensive paintings that were paid with terms, so I had constant money coming in. I also was very excited by my work. I decided to take advantage of the freedoms I had, and couldn’t think of a more delicious way to live than on the island of Rhodes.

Rhodes has, in some ways, a very high quality of life—no pollution, inexpensive rents, farm-fresh foods, and the most beautiful light I have ever seen. In truth, these things were all I needed to restore my equilibrium. Now I have a beautiful home, an ideal studio, and my connection to the world—a laptop! The consequences are that I have completed a great deal of work, my career is on an international path, and enjoyment seems to be the daily norm.

Navigator: When you need to fill your head with beauty, what do you do? Sit by the sea? Go to museums? Look at images in a book? Listen to music?

Newberry: I have found that no amount of beauty really makes me feel good or inspired if I have problems that are creating stress. So I try to clear the space in my brain by taking care of the problems first. I will do the laundry, arrange my finances, workout, etc. Then I find I really enjoy the things you mentioned. I love to swim, more like splash, in the Aegean. When I like a writer, I will go through everything he or she has written, like Agatha Christie stories. Sometimes, I lie in the middle of my studio with a pillow under my head, close my eyes, and listen intently to a singer like Leontyne Price, or to something symphonic. I love to hear the differences of a conductor’s or singer’s interpretations. I have something like five different recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth and some six versions each of Puccini’s Turandot and Bellini’s Norma. Of course, romance is, among other things, a very special inspiration.

Navigator: Whose paintings satisfy your soul?

Newberry: There is a lot of work out there that touches me. And I can love works for the ways they reach different aspects of my soul. One, perhaps shocking, example is The Scream by Munch, a skeletal figure crossing a bridge with its mouth open in a scream. That work doesn’t begin to encompass my soul, but I relate to that painting when I imagine myself in a concentration camp as a victim of the evil that humans can do. I would feel just like that image in that context. In the Classical (500-300 B.C.) Greek rooms of the Metropolitan in New York or the Archeological Museum in Athens, I feel a white calmness. Those sculptures are elegant, simple, and idealistic. I could go on like this, about the different feelings I get and love, from Rembrandt and Michelangelo, the Impressionists and Picasso.

Perhaps a different question is, “What would my personal art collection look like if I could have my pick of the world’s art?”

There is a Vermeer painting, The Girl with the Red Hat. It has a wonderful luminous quality, and the shadows on the woman’s face are the same colors as the tapestry in the background. Those colors create a fascinating atmosphere. From Picasso’s blue and rose period, I would choose A Boy with a Pipe. I would be happy with any of the drawings of Michelangelo. In sculpture, I would choose the Three Graces in marble from the Parthenon frieze and a bronze of a boy galloping on a horse. And then there is a small Rembrandt painting, a quick sketch in paint, of a woman standing in a stream ready for her bath.

Vermeer, Girl with the Red Hat
Picasso, Boy with a Pipe
Three Goddesses from the Parthenon East Pediment
Rembrandt, Woman Bathing in a Stream

There really isn’t any painting that completely satisfies my soul, except for my own. I look to art as I do to friends. Some are outrageous, some have black humor, others are sensitive and kind, some intellectual, and some more emotional. In that way paintings represent different aspects of humanity’s attributes, and as with people, I can individually like, love, hate, or be indifferent to them.

Navigator: Is there an artist, long since dead, whom you would like to share a bottle of wine with and talk with? Or is there a living artist who stimulates your imagination?

Newberry: My guess about the artists I love is that they would not be a lot of fun to talk with. I know a few exceptional living artists who are brilliant, filled to capacity with their own expression ready to burst out at any sign of attention, and who will elevate you, by their presence, to a plane of ecstasy rarely experienced. Don’t get me wrong, it is a blast to experience all that bravura concentrated in a single entity. But often one-sided.

There are two historians with whom I would love to share a bottle of wine and talk late into the morning: Plutarch, and, probably the first art historian, Georgio Vasari. Vasari’s Lives of the Artists is a pure joy to read. He exudes a confidence of knowledge and character that is impossible to find in today’s art world; the exception is Rand. Vasari conveys the atmosphere of the period of the great Renaissance artists. He tells charming anecdotes. As a master painter, he communicates the wizardry of Raphael, Michelangelo, and da Vinci. He describes some of their methods of work and their struggles, and quotes some amazing one-liners. He tells how the architect, Brunelleschi, kept his wits about him to win the commission to design and build the famous Duomo in Florence. He also tells a hilarious episode of the bricklayers going on strike, on the very same dome, claiming that the work was dangerous. How did anyone know the dome wouldn’t collapse? Brunelleschi fired them all. Then he hired, trained, and supervised manual labor found on the street. The original skilled workers begged for their jobs back, and Brunelleschi brought them on at reduced pay! Plutarch writes of the great men of the Greek era, in a very similar style as Vassari. What I enjoy in both of them is their obvious inquisitiveness, their respect for knowledge and for the actions to get the thing done, and how naturally they express their awe of greatness. Now they would be fun to talk with!

Martine Vaugel with her First Survivor
Melissa Hefferlin, Self Portrait, 1993, charcoal and chalk, life size. In my collection.

There are two artist whose work I feel a great deal of respect for. Martine Vaugel is a sculptor and her works range from small to over-life-size nudes. Her “people” are individuals but with fantastic proportions. The themes of her work deal with spiritual themes-from the pain and hollowness of a woman’s abortion to a beautiful elderly man facing the world anew. Her women are very physical, tinged with sexuality, passionate as well as intelligent-looking. Melissa Hefferlin is a ex-apprentice of mine, and she is a prolific painter with a lot of expression in her style and subject matter. One of her early paintings is of a curvaceous woman (self-portrait?) in a black negligée in a provocative stance; with one hand she is holding a sheep mask over her face. It’s a strange mixture of classicism and mystery. Another is a portrait of her soon-to-be husband, and it’s obvious, to me, that the hand that painted that work was filled with love.

Frame of References:

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. Showing 182 of Michelangelo’s artworks, my vote for the greatest visual artist of all time. https://www.wikiart.org/en/michelangelo

Pre-Socratic Thought. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-Socratic_philosophy

Puccini, Giacomo. Ranking Giacomo Puccini’s Operas From Least to Best by David Salazar, thoughtful analysis of the operas with embedded recordings. Great overview of my favorite composer. https://operawire.com/ranking-giacomo-puccinis-operas-from-least-to-best/

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged, perhaps my favorite novel. It combines sci-fi, romanticism, philosophy, love interests, great comeback lines, and extraordinary plotting—and the author shows some amazing visual imagery.

Rembrandt, Harmenszoon van Rijn. 769 of his artworks, https://www.wikiart.org/en/rembrandt

Vaugel, Martine. One of best sculptors alive today. https://vaugelsculpture.com/en/

Vermeer, Johannes. 36 of Vermeer’s paintings, these might be his entire output: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Vermeer

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