This morning I had my second lesson from Michael at the Roanoke County Recreation Department’s water color art class. It was wonderful. I brought two of my awkward renderings. One was of a neighbor’s beautiful black and white cat, whom I have named “Sylvester.”
Sylvester roams the neighborhood. Liz and I have taken to buying top of the line canned cat food for Sylvester and his orange buddy, whom we call Tangerine. Sylvester is particularly fond of the salmon. According to Sylvester’s owners, who live across the street, his real name is Hannah. However, when Hannah hits our property she becomes Sylvester. According to another neighbor, Sylvester is a hunter. We just learned that the dead chipmunk next to the food plate was Sylvester’s “thank you” for our kindness. My initial paintings of Sylvester had not flattered him. The other painting I brought to class was a landscape for which I had risen at 4:30 a.m. to put together. Knowing that we learn most from our mistakes, I was eager to hear Michael’s critique and suggestions.
The class was great. Michael unveiled some of his secrets behind the use of washes and glazes, tips on doing trees and rocks, how to use a pallet knife, table salt, and a tooth brush for special effects, the importance of empty space in water color paintings, the use of a large pallet for arranging and mixing paints, and some tips for creating initial drawings that more accurately reflected the image that I had chosen to represent. By the time half of the two-hour class was over, I was ready to return home to start on my next painting.
My interest in art goes back to my childhood. My dad was a family physician in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, NYC. Way before Medicaid reimbursements made their way into the financing of medicine for the uninsured, my dad treated everyone who came in his door. Many who could not pay for the services were area artists. Occasionally, my dad would have a famous patient like the actor Robert De Niro or the playwright Leroi Jones. Mostly, they were the unknowns.
Among the many artists who came through his door was Franz Kline. In the late 1950s, Franz would become an overnight sensation as one of the leaders in the school of Abstract Expressionism along with colleagues like Jackson Pollack, Wilhelm DeKooning, and Rothko. Suddenly, this band of Greenwich Village painters who were outside the world of the art establishment had taken transformed painting, much as the cubists and the impressionists had done before.
However, long before Franz had a spread of his massive black and white abstracts, he was painting realistic scenes from Greenwich Village, the New York waterfront, and rural Pennsylvania. In an attempt to make ends meet, Franz was well-known throughout the area for doing murals on the walls of local taverns. He was a well-trained artist and his paintings were spectacular. Franz’s wife was very sick, and in exchange for my dad’s service he would pay with a painting. On many occasions my dad would also purchase a painting. Franz did portraits of my brothers and I, and a spectacular one of my mother on commission. As a result, my parents had the largest pre-abstract Kline collection in the country when Franz became famous for his black and white abstractions.
It did not take long for my dad to realize that he was accumulating more wealth from his art collection than medicine. Soon he was purchasing art at auctions and filling their Manhattan condo with the works of Picasso, Degas, Miro, Matisse, Chagall, and the sculptor Moore. Their home was a virtual museum. I was already in college when this transition took place. My youngest brother, Steve, grew up in this world of art and, as a result, became an artist. His medium was collages, often six feet tall with eight inch thick gold painted frames. Steve’s explanation for the size of his pieces was: “Belief sells!”
Steve was a wheeler dealer. One of his boldest moves was to create an exhibit featuring Motherwell and Diebenkorn, two leaders in the international art, and Edlich. Steve’s early work drew praise from a very selective and prestigious art critic in the New York Times. In addition, Steve became an art dealer representing well-known buyers across the art world. Flying to Europe overnight on the Concorde in search of good deals for a client was a simple commute. He owned most of a four-floor building in the Village just east of Broadway and Eight Street. He drank the best wine, wore the best suits, and dined daily at the best restaurants. Steve became the authoritative representative to the art world for my father and helped him to leverage his collections for ever more valuable pieces.
Steve died in his early fifties. The coroner’s autopsy said that it was a heart attack. He had been found face down on a couch in his studio as if smothered in a couch pillow. Our brother Dick, a Professor of Medicine at UVA, and I were never really sure about the circumstances of Dick’s death. We both suspected that there was a good chance that he had not died of natural causes. Steve was dealing in a world that had its underbelly with big dollars involved. Steve was a high roller and neither of us was sure of whom he might have crossed.
In the 1980’s I thought I would try my hand at art. I read Betty Edward’s Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain where she explained that in order to draw we had to shift from the left side, which represented what was seen as symbols, to the right side that saw things as they actually are. In order to trick the brain into a shift to the right side, she had her students draw portraits holding the image to be drawn upside down. The transition of her students’ artwork in the book is nothing short of miraculous. I also bought some cheap water colors and began to paint. When I did a painting that I really liked, I would mat them, frame them, and hang them in my office.
The thing I loved most about the process of drawing and painting was that it was a relief from the tension surrounding my work, which demanded constant thinking about the future, trying to anticipate disaster and maximize opportunities that were emerging in order to maximize our impact in the fight against poverty. To really draw requires shutting out the past and future and focusing wholly on the present. It can be a very mindful experience, and an hour or two of painting was incredibly refreshing. It was like being on vacation. I would frequently carry a pad and drawing pencil to meetings and draw the faces of those around the conference table. When on business trips I would take a break to paint an outdoor scene.
Two things brought this early art experience to a close. The first was that on Christmas Eve, 1989, a fire destroyed the entire 40,000 square foot building that housed the TAP organization, including the paintings in my office. It also destroyed four exceptional oils that my daughter, Connie, had done while taking a course in painting at the University of North Carolina. However, the thing that really interfered with my art career was that I began to wonder if my paintings were good enough to sell. Suddenly, my brain had shifted from the thrill of painting to wondering if I was competitive enough and thoughts about the profitability of my work. My left brain, apparently feeling neglected, decided to take over and wrest the art experience from my right brain. And voila! Doing art was no longer fun. It became another job. I closed up my paints and quit painting.
Over the years, two books have encouraged me to start painting again. The first is On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity by Ellen Langer where she celebrates her own amateur love of doing art for its own sake. Even more persuasive was Natalie Goldberg’s Living Color: Painting, Writing, and Bones of Seeing. Goldberg, a writer by trade, painted exclusively for enjoyment and a relief from the arduous work of an author. The book of her paintings is exquisite. Little attention is paid to the actual shape of cars, chairs, buildings, people. They are quickly drawn and outlined in black pen. The colors are most often primary, especially reds and oranges.
This summer, after I stepped down as CEO of Total Action for Progress, I received the list of classes from the Roanoke County Recreation Department and leafed through the catalogue. There it was: an eight-week course on water colors for beginners. That was how Michael and I and five others met. Now was the time to resume my love affair with the act of painting. Last night I worked until 1:30 in the morning on my third portrait of Sylvester. When it was finished I collapsed into bed totally exhilarated.
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