Days like this are wondrously contemplative despite the roar of the waves rolling in.
In 2008 I created this computer composition as a social commentary "homage" to Barbie. Through it I recognize that beauty is nothing but ephemeral - and yet it is this "limited package" - this perception of what is acceptably beautiful that we have been selling to our daughters for more than 50 years. (2009 being Barbie's 50th) I entitle it : Venus Reborn. I would hope that Botticelli would not be offended in this telling truth.
In 1951, I received the one and only "art award" I have ever received. It was the Boy Scouts Art Badge. Since besting myself is more challenging than trying to best others in competitions, I have never really put any real heart into the process of art competitions as a professional.
Ah, nostalgia! How lucky we are at an early age. . . We can be both cute and awarded at the same time. Today. . . many years later, we are no longer cute nor are we ever considered for awards. . . . (Sigh!)
Why Artists Become Artists?
As I read the above indicated posting, I noted the photos used to “attract” the eye to the article. The presence of Picasso, Leonardo, Van Gogh and Rembrandt certainly gives an air of gravitas to the question at hand. Staring at the row of “greats”, I wondered, in the dark recesses of my mind, whether the contemporary need to call ourselves “artists” is simply nothing more than a ploy for recognition by association.
I’ve always thought that an artist is someone who creates “art” - art as an above and beyond intangible which surpasses by much the basic physicality of the paint, canvas, marble, etc. used to render "artworks". Throughout the centuries, art has proven itself to be a mysterious wonder which has always transcended its 2 or 3 dimensional “supports”. As such, art is not so much the physical artwork we see but rather a presence rising from the depths of someone’s unique ability to sense the powers, wonders and even horrors of it all and, through them, communicate those sentiments to the world at large. Art is that part of it which reaches out beyond the physical plane - touching, moving, awing and speaking to its viewers - surpassing anything that even the best in the basics of craft or technical skill can conjure within the artwork itself.
Though there are millions if not billions of artworks created in the world every day, very few have such powers. But when they do, we recognize them as special, noteworthy, valuable. Though numerous enough worldwide, these exceptional pieces nonetheless remain rare in the grand scheme of things and, in the end, merit a global status which is higher than the norm. And to their creators we equally assign a status of “greaterness”. We call them artists. . . and to the greatest, we assign the title Master. Thus my wondering at the idea of “recognition by association” and these follow-up questions : Are we all artists because we simply wish it so? Do most of us just not accept the titles associated with what we “do” - i.e. : paint, sculpt, compose, write, dance - as good enough? I think of welders not wanting to be associated with the idea and action of welding or teachers not wanting people to know that what they “do” is teach.
Ironically, we live in a world which both eschews royalty and its accompanying titles and appropriations and yet hates being associated with “labour”. And so it assigns itself status which no longer has qualifications attached to it except through “association” with those whose entitlements to that position once demanded qualifications. . . . Just thinking. . .
In 1967 I dared have a first show - a first solo exhibition. I was 22. The prices on the typewritten list were good for the times and also good to start - i.e. : growth possibilities. Was there quality in the presentation? That, it seems was a matter of speculation. . . Being a bilingual country we had/have the benefit of 2 languages and therefore 2 cultural perspectives when presenting reviews of art exhibitions. In English, the critics were welcoming - less so were the French newspapers. . . And in hindsight the French were correct in being critical of my debut. "Get back to the drawing board!". . . "Learn from history. Don't repeat it. . ." "Amateur work." "Keep your efforts to yourself." They left me with lots to ponder. I guess encouragement comes in many forms. . . .
I would "like" to think (no pun intended) that the idea of 'Like" in Facebook is more complex than it appears. At its root, it has more to do with appreciating that something has been said than liking what has been said. But it can mean this as well. Same old, same old? Not necessarily.
Allow me an analogy : Picasso created a painting entitled La Guernica. It spoke to the horrors - the devastation of war as it effects both the physical and the human spirit in each of us. This painting said more about war than many essays. It is sensual, harsh, poignant and direct at the same time. In other words it is a masterful statement. And so, if Picasso presented this painting on Facebook I would immediately click on LIKE to make a point of saying to the painter that I LIKE that he has made this relevant statement. It does in no way mean that I like war or find war beautiful. It's the difference between recognizing that something has been beautifully said whilst knowing full well that the content of the statement may not be pleasurable or beautiful.
I used to think that the Facebook LIKE button was a superficial thing. (At times it actually still is.) BUT, I have come to appreciate the idea of it. In the end, it recognizes an individuals right to speak his or her mind whether the content is likable or not.
This sudden "need" for an UNLIKE button is worrisome in that it seems to render simplistic how we think and feel about something being said. The concept of UNLIKE resurrects the dominant idea of right and wrong rather than same and different thinking. It emphasizes that we have no other choice than to either agree or disagree - i.e. : We are now only able to LIKE what is being said or UNLIKE what is being said - all other nuances being summarily eliminated.
The UNLIKE button, as it is presented, gives power to political correctness. UNLIKE connotes that we not only don't like content such as war, abstract art, lime green Smart cars, poverty or dead child on the beach type of things - it actually goes further by saying , we don't want to hear about them. And that is where the danger lies - not wanting to hear about what we should be hearing about - whether we like it or not.
When we give free rein to our unique minds, we think differently and that's what makes us "us". UNLIKE, on the other hand, homogenizes Facebook thinking so that everyone is led to focus upon and to consider a topic in the same way rather than differently - thus making our unique thoughts and perceptions less valuable than if they are collective thoughts.
Over-reaction? Possibly. But once the idea is initiated there is no going back. LIKE will then mean I can now only like the content not the fact that someone had the wherewithal to say something on their mind. UNLIKE inadvertently will also only focus on the content and not the right of the individual to say something different or differently. UNLIKE is a rigid statement. It limits individual thought. It renders authoritarian the very foundation of the repartee between individuals and groups - which in turn defines whether something is "acceptable" or not - and that specifically includes both the idea of saying something and what is being said. . . Scary.
In 1984, my model Greg and I created this drawing in coloured pencil. It commemorates those nights drawing by flashlight. It is entitled : Too Young For Anatomy - 16" x 20" - Coloured pencil - 1984
Overall, my parents didn’t say much about the obsession I had with drawing the human figure, since I had already voiced my determination to become a portrait painter. That being said, my mother was still of two minds. In the end though, she capitulated; buying me an "artist's mannequin" - a “male” (neutered) mannequin - one with no defined appendage. . . And in the mind of a child, that naturally focuses all the attention on those “missing parts”. But then again. . . a female mannequin was out of the question. . . It had breasts.
The mannequin was OK for a while. It was useful for setting up poses which I could not do with the static book images. But, it looked like a "naked doll" and I was laughed at when I walked around with it. I soon returned to the “real thing” within the pages of the encyclopedia and National Geographic magazines.
At least at night, after everyone was asleep, there was no one there to laugh at my "obsession".
As I continue along this path of "digging up" archival information, I discover and linger, staring and smiling at this photo of the interior of Paul Cézanne's rather unpretentious studio space.
It is rather irreverent to walk into someone’s creative space without first asking. I felt a twinge of guilt upon entering Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence. . . He wasn’t home and it was like trespassing.
I walked the garden transfixed by the overgrowth that nevertheless left the path clear. The cobblestones in the pathway spoke of my presence. They crackled like rice crispies under my feet. It was there, in the late summer of 1997 that I settled to sketch, staring long and hard at a lone chair in the dappled sunlight - waiting for its "sitter". Had he just been here? Did I miss him? Will he be back soon?
I didn’t dare draw "in" his studio. That would definitely have been disrespectful. In that smaller than expected space, I simply looked about, silent, taking it all in, wishing to not make a noise. It felt like being in church, not knowing which prayer to utter. I was in Aix-en-Provence, in Cézanne’s studio. . . His easel seemed as it would have after a long day, I noticed the discus thrower in the cabinet. I smiled. His of clay, mine of bronze seemed to link us closer together.
The bottles for yet another still life, the simple crate supports for the posing of objects. . . Not a palatial place as so many wanna-be grand studios are, Cézanne created great stories out of simplicity. Rather than be grand, he preferred to represent what was truly grand - like the Mont St-Victoire.
On April 30, 1896, Cézanne wrote to Joachim Gasquet: "All my life I have worked to be able to earn my living, but I thought that one could do good painting without attracting attention to one's private life. Certainly, an artist wishes to raise himself intellectually as much as possible, but the man must remain obscure. The pleasure must be found in the work.” - *
And to this letter I have tried (not always successfully) to remain true.
And so, for this opportunity to simply “be” in that place of 9 rue Paul Cézanne, I would like to personally thank the American Friends of Cézanne who through their generosity saved and offered this place to the Université de Aix-en-Provence. If it wasn’t for these incredible people, the house and studio of Paul Cézanne might today only be a figment of all of our imaginings - razed, from a plot of land within the town - a plot of land with no memory of his passing, his grace and his genius.
Paul sat here. . . Jardin de Cézanne - Oil created from 1997 sketch - 18" x 24" - 1998
The preliminary sketch, created in 1980 while listening to the passionate presentation of "the orator".
So many experiences are the children of happenstance. In 1980, I was in a standing room only lecture hall, listening to a speaker promoting the essence and richness and power of Canada. He was passionate; gesticulating, punching the air with fingers and fist and extended hands, reaching out to his audience from one side of the hall to the other, never forgetting to look at each one of us. I was fascinated. I grabbed a piece of paper and jotted down a few lines - hoping that one day I could take this quick sketch and turn it into a full fledged painting which would fully describe what I had felt on that day in 1980 - a day when the idea of “Canada expressed” had touched me deeply. Little did I know. . .
The man was Jean Chrétien. At that time, he was Minister Responsible for Constitutional Negotiations and his fiery speeches were legendary. The sketch I had rendered of him orating passionately, lay dormant in a file folder for 24 years.
In 2004 I was commissioned to create an official portrait of the now Right Honourable Jean Chrétien, Prime Minister of Canada. This portrait was for his Alma Mater the Collège de Trois-Rivières.
But as long as I would be spending time with him in the studio creating the commissioned portrait , I figured I should dig up the old sketch and see what I could do with it also. It's not every day I have a Prime Minister of a country "popping in" for a pose. I searched and found the old sketch.
My wife Marie was asked to engage him in conversation while I shot picture after picture after picture of him. It wasn't long before he became as animated as he had been in 1980. How that man loves Canada! He was fascinating to watch as he quickly, yet calmly, responding to each question - addressing each point with eloquence and serious thought. The whole process was magic. I wanted mood and mood is what I got. The final portrait hung in our dining room for 5 years. It eventually was purchased by friends of the Prime Minister as a gift to him for his 75th birthday.
The following images are some of the 330 shots I took that afternoon. They pretty well depict the type of poses used in the final painting. What added enormously to the excitement was that I had to do no posing whatsoever. Everything was a natural reaction and animation. Such is the honesty of the man - completely candid and real.
First painting - My association with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, as it relates to artwork, began in 1985 with the boy on a hospital bed looking out the window. The painting was entitled Just Another Nice Day. The models (plural, because the figure is a composite of two boys) were twins. They were the sons of a hospital employee and alternated for the posing as one was not comfortable with an open hospital gown, the other couldn’t have cared less. Reproductions of this painting were used for years as gifts to prominent donors and international dignitaries. A Copy of this painting was presented to the Beijing Children's Hospital representatives who came to Ottawa on an exchange tour.
Second painting (drawing) - TLC was created in 1987
In 1998, I completed two additional paintings for the hospital.
Third painting - Entitled : Everything'll Be OK was the female counterpart to the 1985 painting Just Another Nice Day. Though only coming about in 1998, I would like to think she was worth the wait. It isn’t easy creating a “warm” scene when intravenous equipment is a major part of the picture story. So it took me a bit of time to come up with this composition.
The last but according to Hospital officials , not the least is the painting which represents the importance of The Teddy Bear’s Picnic - an annual event in Ottawa which is very dear to the children of the region. Based on the television series MASH, it is to this event that kids bring their broke or “ill” teddy bears to be operated on and made better. Arms are sewn back on, missing eyes and tails replaced and for those bears just visiting - a sling for their strained elbows or a cast for their twisted leg can be registered for. All operations take place in MASH like tents where volunteers in appropriate garb (both medical and secular) repair and “operate” on the not well Teddy Bears - making them feel all better.
I am a painter and writer who's whole life has been influenced by one precept : "thinking each our own thoughts makes us relevant and relevance makes us powerful."