Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Letter to Mr. Hendricks

The following is a letter I recently wrote to an old favorite professor, James Hendricks (  my UMASS Amherst days.  I was thrilled that he not only remembered me but spoke so reverently of my time in his classes and as a member of my thesis committee.  James asked me what I've been up to since we last saw each other and I filled him in.  I found myself talking more about the play between parenting and making my art more than strictly my I think that it is relevant to include here in this blog.

Hello James,

Gosh! What a wonderful surprise. Thank you for replying so quickly and glowingly. The last time we saw each other was about 11 years ago. We were walking in the parking lot across from the FAC (actually where the new sculpture facility is) and you were shedding your wisdom and personal insights on me at the time. I was applying for the graduate program in painting at UMASS and I believe you gave me a lovely recommendation on paper...but in person you told me that you thought I'd be much better off just going out and doing my art and skipping the graduate and teaching route. So I did that...and some other things as well: After you and I said our goodbyes I went and got married, moved to Washington, DC for my wife to join the Foreign Service, learn Chinese, had a baby girl ten months later and moved to Taipei, Taiwan for two years. After that we had a second daughter and moved to Accra, Ghana for two and a half amazing years.  Next it was back to the States to learn Polish, and then on to Krakow, Poland for three years.  Over those ten years of overseas life I have continued to paint, collage, and generally mix my media thoroughly as far as family life allows. I've had many shows and learned a great deal about making art in a wide range of environments, conditions and schedules.

Now, I really meant what I said [in my original email to Hendricks] when I mentioned you having an enormous and positive effect on my work. I can think of favorite teachers ([Leonel] Gongora, [Richard] Yarde, [Dale] Schlappi) but it is your pure excitement with the medium of paint, your thrill of the cosmos and the orgiastic state that really continues to resonate with me. Perhaps the best example I have of this is in the great lesson of painting on a regular basis with my first daughter: I was living in Taiwan - a muggy, polluted, overpopulated city with every square inch filled something living, exciting, weird and wonderful...but the combination of language barriers (my Mandarin is just fine for shopping, getting around and being polite but when it comes to discussing a particular color compliment and its near tirtiary and the emotional and spiritual ramifications...I don't know where to begin) and being a stay-at-home dad who's used to having his finger on the pulse of "what's happening" - well frankly put, I felt incredibly depressed and the future looked bleak: I was going insane not making my art and as a result becoming a more and more distracted new parent. Now somewhere in this emotional and psychic quagmire I devised a way to still practice my art and take really great care of my daughter. I did this by what I later came to call my "gorilla-style art". Art that could travel anywhere, be whipped out in a flash, done with varying processes, accomplished in 5, 10 or 15 minute sessions and then quickly tossed back into a backpack or diaper bag. I found a big sheet of really fine, heavyweight Arches watercolor paper and folded it into fours. I packed up some decent oil pastels, a couple of tins of nice water color paints, brushes and a collapsible water container. With my daughter I would wheel down to Da An park and find a shady spot to lay everything out. Then I would start with a limited selection of an oil/wax resist for her to start on one of the quartered sections (actually, officially there are eight sides to this paper if you include the back...which is what all toddlers will need if the moment should strike their fancy). I would make a conscious effort not to correct, guide or inform my daughter what to do but instead I would copy, mimic or elaborate on her mark making. James, this is where you and your lessons really sprouted and saved my sorry ass: I woke up to the pure magic and power of the raw color, motion and physicality of mark making.  My two-year old daughter would be zooming away in long arcs with an ultramarine blue and I'd follow her lead with a Prussian blue or lavender and the effect was quite exhilarating. My BFA in Painting degree came in handy with a the palate that I would limit and then the complimentary colors that I would allow for the water-based media to electrify the space around the wax resist...but it was the act of getting into the child's mind again and getting excited about not know what would come next, new textures, following my intuition and not my analytical thought process...and just when I really started to get into it my daughter would decide she'd had enough and would run after a butterfly. I'd pack up everything in a matter of ten seconds and could be running after her across the park. The next day we could pick up where we left off on the same side or another and over a week or so the paper would be all filled up and rich with scribbles, drips and a whole new cosmos to think about. I ended up using all of your techniques with my daughters (racing drips down an angled canvas is a really good game for little ones) but perhaps more importantly there was the reminded lesson of the excitement of color, mark making, energy infused paint, pattern and the birth of the cosmos with my art collaborations with my daughters that returned me to your classes once again. It also gave me an important key to continuing to practice my art and still have a family.

With each move and new country I've learned new ways to improvise with my family, my art and the expat lifestyle. In Taiwan I built my first computer and got into photo montage. The computer enabled me to juxtapose and play with images and then when a child awoke from a nap I could just leave it sitting there without any fear of something drying, something blowing away or randomly chewed by a toddler. Ghana had its dust, insects, amazing birds, known and unknown diseases with varieties of symptoms and array of drugs to be had...along with, again, an ancient culture moving and adapting quite gracefully to cellphones and the Internet along side bare feet and perhaps a single meal a day. The Ghanaian experience reminded me of the sensual, the hallucinatory, the plight of humanity and the camaraderie of many people in day-to-day survival mode. My art in Ghana took on the dust, the colorfulness, the primitiveness, and hopefully some of the grace and dignity that most Ghanaians have in the face of great extremes.  In Poland came a reawakening of my love for cameras and pictures. I could wander around with my family and take a picture when the moment presented itself...I could regularly practice my sense of composition, light, form and subject. Years back I was rarely thinking of a photo as a single end result but more as an item to be collected and collaged with. Lately, I've been thinking a bit more about simply taking a picture, developing and printing it with minimal manipulations but I'm still fascinated with the subject of raw, weathered textures, cryptic, deep and mysterious environments and how people find each other and themselves in those spaces.

Taiwan had its millions of people, high tech in contrapuntal to its ancient culture. Poland had its long-term collective memory of 1000 years of invasions, establishments rising and falling and a rugged determinedness that will always get them through the worst and best of times - each scar is a badge of honor and a weapon of victimhood.  Now, our most recent three years in Krakow, a medieval city that was terrorized by dragons, spellbound by magicians, stormed by Turks and occupied but never bombed by the Nazis - Krakow was our best posting yet because art is really and truly loved by almost everyone. I taught conversational English and American Culture to high school students who were at ease with modern-day metal and rap music as well as Chopin, Bach or Verdi. I could discuss Facebook and Salvador Dali in the same sentence and most of them would get it. Polish poster art is still very much nodding and winking to painting and fine art at the same time as demanding acknowledgement of absurdist art, dada or surrealism - it was regularly a great joy to be surrounded by this deep and fascinating culture. Krakow was a definite peak... It'll be hard to top that tour.

Now, all this being said, I've not gotten all that far professionally with my art. I struggle with the business end of things. I don't have a dealer or a gallery that represents me. And I feel totally out of touch with who's who in the art world. For the past ten years my wife and I have focused on raising our young daughters and my wife's career. Last August we bought a little fixer-upper house in Silver Spring, MD and I'm trying to both find a regularly paying job and somehow break out with my art. Both of my daughters are in school full time (Lucy is in 4th grade and Maren is in 1st) which has afforded me a bit more time to follow through with the art business.  Just recently I was awarded a two month "Visiting Artist" slot at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Old Town, Alexandria, VA. I've totally thrilled at the prospects and want to make the most of it. Which means my wife and I need to take separate vacations and find summer camps for our daughters...we're still working those items out. I've joined the Art League that has a gallery based out of the Torpedo Factory and the combination of the two entities has been great for networking, mentoring and inspiration. I start my gig on the first of June and run through 'til the end of July. I've built and prepped over 14 masonite, framed boards with the hopes of making 14-plus new mixed media photo montages. We'll see how it all goes.

Now, James, if you ever find yourself down in the DC area please let me know because I'd love to buy you a drink and catch up with all your adventures. A couple of days ago I was trying to track down a gallon of Golden matte medium and had a really delightful conversation with, I believe its, Terry at Golden's customer support. I mentioned that you turned me on to the wonders and, dare I say, religion that is the Golden name and product and she had lots of great things to say about her 15 or so years of helping you out. I told her that I'd tried to track you down through UMASS but came up with nothing. She was the one who directed me to your website. I'm really chuffed that you remember me and that my experience with you and your classes seem to be mutual. I'll be taking this feeling a long way for sure.

This summer is quite hectic. My wife and family plan on visiting with my mother-in-law in Massachusetts but I'll be down at the Torpedo Factory. Usually I do get up to Western Mass every couple of years or so...if its alright, the next time I headed to town could I look you up and buy you that drink? At the very least, its been a real pleasure writing this rambling letter and I hope it comes to some good use. Let me know if there is every anything I can do for you. I'd be pleased as punch to return the favor and honor of your company all those years ago.

Warmest Regards,

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