Sunday, February 28, 2010

Graven Images

Soft and low, like a muffled bass drum, the canvas has a voice.  I like stretching it across the pine slats, and firmly tacking it in place, mindful that the mesh pattern is square with the frame.  After a coat or two of gesso, it has that sound, soft and low.  I tap it with my fingertips, my ear held close as if listening to the heartbeat of an elk.

Music and art always competed for my heart, and I guess music won, but not without a fight. 

When I enrolled as a wide-eyed freshman at Taylor University in Indiana, I signed up as an Art Major.   The art department was chaired by a man whom I will call Jack Preston, an interesting and odd person, whose birdlike nervousness betrayed his sensitive nature.  A delicate soul with indelicate political views, Jack was the only person I’ve ever known to be a member of the John Birch Society. 

Of course, Jack’s viewpoints were not uncommon in Indiana in 1972, where billboards announcing “Get the US out of the UN” or "Register Communists, not firearms" were as common as cornfields.    How ironic that years later, his hero Ronald Reagan would slash government funding for the arts.

Politics aside, Jack Preston displayed a kindness which probably saved his job; he was an sincere Christian, and although he was of the fundamentalist stripe, he earnestly sought to understand and communicate with his flower child students, who seemed dichotomous to him. 

As he was the chairman of the art department, and the primary painting professor, I still am amazed that Jack was color blind.  He would often point to one of his portraits in progress and ask students if the colors were “right”.   The answer, though subjective art might be, was always “no”. 

Wisely, I waited for Professor Preston to take his sabbatical before I took any courses in painting.  

Through a visiting professor whose name escapes me, I found a style which was contrary to my haphazard way of life.  I painted in a very defined, almost paint by numbers, hard-edged motif, reducing images down to their most essential shapes and colors. 

I still have some of these paintings, and while I like them, I now recognize the fear in them.  Reducing a face to very few shade zones, much like a child’s paint by number painting, was my way of ignoring the details while still making good art.  I avoided the interplay of dark and light by reducing those infinite shades to one or the other.  The paintings were essentially pop art, and I was proud of them, especially my portrait of Truman Capote, which won a First Place ribbon in an art show at the university.   Nowadays, I wonder if I would have been far more satisfied with these pop works if I’d been equally adept at some semblance of realism.  None of my realistic work from that period enthralls me, while, admittedly my hard edge portraits of Truman Capote and bluesman Taj Mahal have places of honor on my walls.

Like my personality, my canvases were bold.   As much as I like those assertive, confident paintings, I wonder if finding such a style not only pleased my pallette for spice, but averted attention from the fact that I wasn’t all that good in capturing the details realism demanded.

You can only paint by numbers so many times before it becomes boring, so after graduating from college, I painted a few more times, got married, and then lost interest.  I kept my brushes and my paints, which eventually hardened in their metal tubes.   The old blue tacklebox, filled with brushes, paints, and linseed oil, followed the course of my life, always settling underneath basement stairs or the bottom shelf of a utility closet, unopened for over 25 years.  My heart was like one of those dried up tubes of paint; blue, most likely.

Not too long ago, I heard that familiar, soft and low bass drum sound, and found myself in step with its beat.

It started like this.  My southern born woman and I were relaxing under a wide, blue umbrella one sunny, scenic afternoon.  Reaching into her handbag for a book, she handed me a small set of watercolors and a pad.   I drew the yellow and grey beach house that perched over her right shoulder, as I listened to her read from Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Gospel Medicine”. 

Then, I turned my attention to my reader, a reluctant subject, and painted her relaxed, graceful form reclining in a blue beach chair, her beauty crowned with a ball cap. 

Not long after that, I went on the road with Emmylou Harris, and along with a few books, I took a set of watercolors and a pad of postcard stock.

Our first stop was Monterey, California.  On a beautiful May afternoon, I walked along a pathway above the Pacific, photographing flowers and scenery.  When I returned to my room, I wrote a poem to my dearest companion, and adorned it with detailed paintings of the flowers.  Something stirred me, like a paint stick awakening a bucket of paralyzed paint. 

Our next stop was less quaint, but I was determined to find something worthy to paint.

I made a vow that I would search for beauty, no matter how bland the landscape or how dreary the surroundings.  I would photograph my findings, and return to my hotel room, and begin to paint.   As a way to keep my eye objective, I would often turn the image in my computer upside-down, which would force me to paint what I was actually seeing; right-side up, I might find myself painting what I thought I saw.  Oh, I’m not that clever; it’s a time-proven trick painters have employed for years.

In a grey-skied Kansas outpost, between two old abandoned buildings, I discovered a small Japanese zen garden.   As long as my inner eye was open, finding something to paint was easy.

That year, the band traveled the United States, Canada, and Europe, and my paintbox and camera were my quiet companions.  The solace that I experienced was soothing, and for the first time in all my years of being a touring musician, the hotel room television was left off.  

Back in Nashville, my dearest companion started receiving postcards or envelopes adorned with my findings- houseboats in Vancouver, a taco stand in Portland, a canal in Amsterdam, votif candles in a London cathedral, and serpentine steeples from Copenhagen.   Her favorite is a white cat walking across the top of a chair at an outdoor cafe in Brussels. 

These small paintings, the size of an index card, are detailed and emotional, unlike the large, loud, hard-edged paintings of my youth.   As she and I find so much commonality in art and literature, it's a fitting offering to send my woman; a postcard of my own making, telling her the obvious without so many words, and certainly nicer than a "Greetings from Des Moines" photo montage.

Working on such a small scale is somehow soothing, and the finish line is attainable.  There is a performance art quality in this process, a perceived drama, as the card makes its journey from somewhere on a map to Nashville, Tennessee.  So far, every card I’ve dropped in a mailbox has made its destination, like a homing pigeon who knows where it’s supposed to go.  The cards arrive slightly tattered and weathered, with various official markings from where they’ve come.   Some artists finish a painting by putting a coat of varnish on it; I finish mine by affixing a stamp to it and pushing it through a mail slot.

The postcard paintings are part of my touring routine.   Once I'm home, I resort to other means of creativity. 

Off the road, which is most of the time, I always have a canvas, stretched and waiting, on my easel in what is supposed to be my breakfast room.  Sometimes it will sit for days, white as a ghost.  Sometimes I'm inspired to paint; often I will paint to be inspired.

When I was working on the Ralston Bowles recording, he stayed at my home.  I rarely have clients stay with me, but he's an old friend, and it was my pleasure to host him, as well as to record him.  I warned him, though, that after recording together for 10 hours each day, we might want a quiet break from each other when the evenings came.

At the end of the second day of recording, he sat in my breakfast nook talking.  I think the chemotherapy treatments coursing their way through his veins had brought on a surge of verbosity, so I stood in the room, exhausted, wondering how to find the needed break without hurting anyone's feelings.  I finally said, "Sit down, and keep talking", and began painting his portrait as he spoke.   It now hangs in his home in Grand Rapids.

One of the most difficult things about painting on a larger scale is realizing when the painting is finished.  When can you let go and sign your name?  One of my paintings, Easy As Pie, is abstract, meaningless as far as I know.  Letting go and finding beauty in the shapes and colors and technique took some doing.   Yet, somehow, I find what I've done to be agreeable, pleasing to the eye, and filling me with a sense of accomplishment. 

I understand the concept of the eye needing to find pleasure.  As a child I would demand the blue plate, among the several choices in our every day china.  This brought my siblings and parents endless amusement, as I would invariably be handed the green or the red plate.  It's hard to believe I was ever that obsessive, but apparently, I was.   My eye still finds immense pleasure in all things blue, although my mother no longer has those colored dishes.

I think of color blind Jack Preston asking students if he'd gotten the tone of a face right, not having experienced optical pleasure for himself, but hoping to succeed in bringing it elsewhere.   He usually, if not always, failed to accomplish the feat of pleasing his audience's eyes.

What makes a combination of colors soothing and satisfying?  Why do some sequences of notes and tones please the ear while others seem random and meaningless, if not dissonant and unpleasant?   Why does the ear know the difference between the soulful lullaby of a loving mother and the nagging drone of a dissatisfied customer?

Is this discernment our Creator's DNA flowing through our minds and spirits?  Perhaps the urge to create and the ability to objectively evaluate what we hear, read, see, smell, taste, etc, comes from some primeval place, something beyond education and experience, yet from the very same place which spurs us to become adventurous and enlightened. 

Or maybe the creative process just comes down to one person letting another know "I'm alive!"

I am thinking of my scratched, blue tackle box with its hardened paint tubes and forgotten brushes, and how the lack of a soul mate rusted the hinges on that old case.   When love came to me, the urge to create goodness, and the desire to please another's eye, oiled my creative engine.  My heart opened slowly, like the first time I opened an old blue tackle box in 25 years.

And now it's beating, like an elk's.


  1. many thanks for these sharings, and for allowing me to see them.
    continue to "create dangerously," mon frere!
    shalom. shalom~

  2. I have fond memories of sitting in that hotel room in San Diego, watching you finish up that day's little masterpiece. Keep it coming, Phil.

  3. I too remember Dr. "Preston" I was his student secretary for a year. I wasn't an art major, but loved to create whatever grabbed me at the time. He encouraged me to come around when I wasn't working and try my hand at drawing, painting, and my favorite, pottery. I guess I didn't have such a great eye because I always thought that, for being color blind, his art was amazing. Wish I could see some of your stuff. I've always enjoyed your music and remember fondly sitting in MCW listening to you play the grand piano. Jan (Fairchild) Alvaro

  4. this is interesting to me. i had many friends who graduated taylor. i do not know why. one of which very good friend. i visited. iwas an artist my whole life. a youung musician later, not on purpose. in fact: i am not sure how i made such an amazingly terrible turn. still however i was always an artist since a child drawing on illegal apartment walls and adding while parents not looking and making up worlds and things for those worlds to live in. but my friend at talyor: changed it all, the scoundrel. tho i had already heard this guy bob, quite a bit since even the apartment murals. and even seen him play right after his terrible motorcycle accident. she had tape cassette she played of him when i visited her in indiana when i was teenager?:. and it had the song i had so much left to do i had so little time to fail theres some people that you dont forget
    even though you've only seenem one time or two when the roses fade and im in the shade
    ill remember you
    i had to paint with music now and i am scarred both ways. i feel this way about everyone. thankyou phil: great writing always.
    was it obbssession? seamstress has needle and thredd. xo.eternal r.

  5. Like alot of people, life is way to buzzy and busy for me to give much more than a glance-over, but I find it very difficult to extract myself from reading through your posts. Your phrasing and metaphor intone your reflective posts with a musicality and soul. Just these little images, like the blue plate, sparks my imagination (would make a great illustrated kids book - I Want the Blue Plate!). Your writing fits you well in hues and subtlties and its a pleasure to read. I would love to hear your voice on these, perhaps an audio book of your posts. I just like it.

    Kurt Lightner

  6. Kurt, thanks for the kind words! I'm enjoying writing, and delighted that I'm holding the attention of someone such as yourself.

    Best to you, wherever you are.



Your comments are welcome, and I will try answer any questions, if possible. Thanks for reading! pkm