That’s not an insignificant question given the state of the world. An unprovoked war rages in Ukraine. American democracy is facing terrible stress, even as American citizens are increasingly polarized from one another. And then of course there is an ecological crisis bearing down upon the world, threatening an unimaginable apocalyptic ending to life as we have come to know it.
And so why art? Or for that matter, why is music important? Or sculpture? Or theater? Or dance? Why is a painting on a blank canvas important in our broken world? I constantly ask myself these questions, especially when I spend day after day in my southern Indiana studio.
What makes sense to me is this . . . Art comes from the
depths of the human spirit, and the human spirit must be honored, loved, and nurtured – always – but that’s especially true in our desperate times. This means that art isn’t merely nice, like an accessory on a new car, but it’s essential for the human experience.
Art brings beauty to the forefront of our consciousness, and beauty is everything when it comes to the human spirit. Beauty resonates within the depths of our humanity. When I am in the presence of beauty, I am alive – deeply, joyfully, meaningfully alive! And when I cannot see beauty, most often a personal failure on my part, I suffer within my soul like a dusty plant in need of water.
Am I chasing something beautiful in my painting? Yes, of course I am. But it’s more than beauty. I am after creativity and generativity, a deep-down aliveness that affirms my human experience. In this sense, for me at least, painting is a profoundly spiritual enterprise.
For many years I was a progressive, liberal clergyperson, serving some of the great churches in our country. I learned very quickly that all religion is ultimately about a search. It’s a search for “God” or “Universe” or whatever word you want to use, but it’s also about our search for a depth of experience in our living. While painting takes place upon the surface of a canvas, it is
in all actuality an attempt to move into the deepest place of our humanity.
Almost all my paintings are about the abstract use of color and texture, often juxtaposing the materiality of color to achieve an evocative insight or emotional resonance. I am not trying to achieve any kind of figurative presentation. Nor are my paintings didactic. Instead, I’m inviting the viewer to experience a resonant truth that is at once beyond us and deeply within us.
Some paintings are dreamlike, using a pointillism technique to create an energized, painterly canvas. Swirls and swoops (and some drips too) are incorporated into many of my paintings. William Blake once wrote that, “Energy is eternal delight.” I think it’s fair to say that all my paintings have a novice like rawness. Tidy paintings are not in my wheelhouse. Sometimes I use
a brush. At other times I utilize a long spatula-like knife. (Most paintings have ten to fifteen layers of paint on the canvas.) While some artists have a delicate hand with their painting, and I admire that so much, I tend to pile up paint and color with all the delicacy of a heavy-weight boxer. If more is good . . . then why not more on top of more on top of more? Anyone who visits my house can quickly see that I’m not a minimalist.
Robert Frost once said that “Every poem begins with a lump in the throat.” I think that’s true of works of art, too. We look once. Twice. A third time. And like a lump in the throat, we feel an emotional connection to the painting.
Every now and then people ask, “What were you trying to say with this painting?” First of all, I don’t have a specific “intention” with any of my paintings. Nor am I trying to “say” something. Most often I am listening to my human experience and memory, and then, well, Paint Happens! Yet even if I did have a “message,” it wouldn’t really matter, because once someone else looks
at the painting – you the viewer – the painting belongs to you.
Emily Dickinson once wrote, “The heart wants what it wants.”
And when it comes to art, the viewer sees what the viewer sees.
To “enjoy” art means we find a depth connection to it. The entire experience becomes magical. Dare I say mystical? This is why I believe art is a humanizing power in the world, and therefore essential to the human experience.
Finally, I want to mention a few sources of inspiration for my work . . .
There are so many artists who inspire me, and much like a Netflix series, I tend to binge one or two at a time. Of course, it must start with Henri Matisse. Always Henri Matisse.
And then Picasso.
But rushing into the 20th century the list quickly becomes long . . . Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, the de Koonings, Joan Mitchell, Clifford Still, Helen Frankenthaler, William Congdon, William Calder, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly, Alice Neel, the German Expressionists and an array of 20th century Mexican artists, African American artists like Bearden, Ringgold,
Lawrence and others associated with the Harlem Renaissance – Oh, I should not have started this list!
As for painters working today, I think of Sean Scully, Stanley Whitney, Amy Sherald, Julian Schnabel, Ed Rusha, David Hockney, Jenny Saville, and on and on it goes . . . so many great artists are working today . . . and I am always glad to discover a new one.
When it comes to sources of inspiration . . . all I can say is what Walt Whitman once said, “I
I am multitudes.