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Walking the Line

This past October, on a beautiful Saturday morning, I joined folks from The Backbone Ridge History Group on a walk following one of the original boundary lines from the Military Lots. This was an exciting opportunity for me as it ties into my own Boundaries Project, where I am exploring original lot lines from the division of the land as a means to compensate soldiers for their service in the Revolutionary War. Although I am exploring areas on state land near Dryden, I have deep roots in the Backbone Ridge area of Hector, having grown up nearby. Even though the federal lands are now collectively called Finger Lakes National Forest, locals tend to refer to it simply as Hector from when it was Hector Land Use Area. The mixed forests and grazing pastures at the apex of the gently curving arc of land between the two longest Finger Lakes is a patchwork quilt of squared parcels, a result of the government program of buying out ailing farmers during the great depression. There is a general agreement that the thin hilltop soils were fairly depleted and that, along with changes in modes of transportation, made it hard to compete with Midwestern farms. Some farmers decided to stick it out and many of their successors work those same lands today, thus the checkerboard of public and private land. Much of the forest is second growth, replanted by the forest service, who also removed much, but not all, of the evidence of the former farms. Because of this, there are more trees now then there were during the late nineteenth century when deforestation reached its peak.

 

Hector was my romping grounds as a kid, so I was excited to learn that the Backbone Ridge group shared my interest in the historic division of land into neat parcels. That division set into play the ensuing development of the land and helped establish the framework for the growing nation. My artwork explores how place helps define who we are; my feeling is that as much as the early settlers tried to alter the landscape to suit their needs, the landscape they discovered altered them and fed them in ways that they could not initially fathom. It certainly has had its effect on me.

 

Exploring these early boundaries, most of which are embedded in contemporary roads, hedgerows, and property lines, makes me think about what it was like for those early settlers to arrive at terra incognito and then to be faced with the heavy burden of improving the land by clearing timber, creating fields, houses, roads and mills. A step off any trail into the dense mixed hardwood forest gives one a sense of the overwhelming task. Initially, the forest must have seemed infinite; the incredible views we now enjoy from the open grazing land would not be apparent to them for years. The terrain was fairly gentle and accessible and punctuated by small streams that could provide waterpower. But as one left the ridge, these same streams must have proven to be obstacles as they funneled into steep east-west running gorges obstructing north-south travel. The upland soils today are thin and clayey, one wonders if that was always the case or if it is the result of overworking the land. The flat-bottomed valleys of glacial moraine would have been the most productive land then, as it is now. Granted a chunk of land through a lottery system, soldiers (or more likely, their heirs or subsequent speculators) likely had no idea of what they were getting into; new arrivals on the ridge must have cast a jealous eye towards those lowland parcels. After a century of farming, the thin hilltop soils became so depleted that the government stepped in and bought back much of the land, establishing the federal and state land preserves that we enjoy today.

 

If one traces the lineage of the families that ended up on the Ridge in the early 1800’s many of them still have family farms in the area and their names can be found on local road signs. Growing up here, it was understood that these are the hard working families that are the base of region’s agrarian economy. As hard as the work is today, I can only imagine what clearing the land with oxen and ax was like two hundred years ago. While our European counterparts were sipping tea and enjoying luxuries, early Americans were working their hands bare eking out a rudimentary existence in the woods. Yet this was part of Jefferson’s vision: A nation of independent yeoman farmers, self-sufficient, self governing, and hard working, but free from an oppressive government standing over them.

 

My walk with the Hector Ridge Backbone group was a planned outing to recreate the effort it took to survey just a small portion of the thousands of miles of boundary lines that were accurately surveyed under the leadership of Simeon De Witt at the beginning of the nineteenth century. We walked north along the Interloken Trail from Teeter Pond and then explored the northwest section of Military Lot 92, measuring a line south from Townsend road to a west- flowing stream and site of an old saw-mill listed as belonging to J.G. Skinner on a map from 1850. Along the way we encountered old cellar holes and foundations associated with the settlement. To measure the line we used an antique chain, which is both a unit of measure equal to 66 feet and the actual device used to measure it. It has 100 steel links, elegant brass handles at the ends and brass counters at set distances. The logic of the length has to do with the units of measure we inherited from the British. One acre is 10 square chains; 640 acres equals a square mile. One rod is a quarter of a chain, and was a common width for a road, such as in “One Rod Road”. Although it is not as simple as the metric system, there is some mathematical logic to it all. Since the roads bounding those early lots tend to form a mile square grid, and the Military lots were 600 acres, it isn’t clear what happened to the remaining 40 acres. Furthermore, A square mile, or 600 acres, can’t be evenly squared, thus the familiar rectangular parcels. Lots were divided into smaller parcels according to the soldier’s ranks, with a quarter of a quarter lot being the minimum standard of 40 acres that is still colloquially referred to (although that has more to do antebellum era in the South). The geometry of it all is pretty perplexing; it is amazing that the maps we use today still use those early lines as a base.

 

Having explored the concept of land division in my work for the past several years, it was really exciting to be using one those original devices. Albeit, we weren’t running through the brush, tugging on the brass hand-holds as I image the early surveyors did but, rather, given the antique nature of the chain, we gingerly carried it aloft of the pervasive mud with team of a dozen of us. Thinking back to those surveyors who forged through far worse and were guided only by compass, it is amazing to consider just how accurate they were. Flying over most of the country today, one can see the results of those efforts in the precise grid that defines the mid-west farmlands.

 

Our little Sunday jaunt opened a window to the past and to the incredible efforts it took for the early settlers to gain a foothold on this land. The work I have been doing raises questions about that dominion and the incongruity of the imposition of the grid onto an organic landscape with it’s own boundaries of streams, hills and lakes, and history of Iroquois settlement. Jefferson’s concept of the Yeoman Farmer was the incubator for the independent thinking American that we know today but also formed the mythos of the autonomous landholder that goes along with that. These early settlers had to make it on their own without depending on government support and that was the intended price of living free of government control. Here, in the hills of Central New York, whole communities of strong individuals developed from that history.

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Speaking Directly

sculpture series failure of communication
The Failure of Communication, 2012-18

 

Speaking directly

In conversation and art it’s often difficult to say what you mean. We muddle through our words and leave the back door open so that rogue interpretations can slip in. We fear treading into the waters of deep sincerity because we might drown in an excess of emotion. As an artist, there is this constant question of how deep to go, how much vulnerability to reveal, how much truth to uncover.

Recently, as I was transferring slides of old work into digital images, I had a fresh look at the art I created during a formative period—the time during and after grad school. Although I majored in sculpture, I was doing a lot of wildly expressive paintings on paper in addition to the requisite three- dimensional work. There was no shortage of emotional outflow in these images and a deliberate loosening of control over the medium. I used anything at hand; house paint, roofing tar, mud, and aluminum roof coat were typical. Many, in reverence to Ad Reinhart, pushed the boundaries of perceivable darkness. Some suggested impossibly dynamic sculptures. I worked on large sheets of acid-free kraft paper that a friend procured for me from the Cornell map library and did several each week.

Despite the prodigious outflow and boldness of the work, I was still muttering my way through expression. I didn’t know how or what I wanted to say. Like the loud drunk at a party, people were noticing me, but the substance of my expression was completely lost to all but my closest friends.

The art world is a place where fear of rejection, being a stranger to success, and expectations from others all steer us away from being honest in our work. Some artists appropriate styles and techniques based on popularity while others safely avoid introspection by embracing a practice that delves solely into formalist aesthetics or the concerns of representation. Sometimes I enjoy the process of working simply, taking all of my cues from the subject, such as when I do plein-air watercolors or figure drawings. Because these are not fettered with meaning, there is almost a Catholic guilt to how easy it is to make these.

Mostly, the work I am doing now, such as the recent photo-documentation of landscape interventions, has conceptual undertones and a specific message which might be tied to the history of a site or some other academic inquiry. I try to control the interpretation by establishing clear contexts which I elucidate in my statements and titles and reinforce by presenting the work as a series. The work is not wildly expressive like those older paintings, but based on ideas that originate outside of myself. The meaning is still a moving target and I do inject a bit self- reflection into the image making. The wild thrashing in my early work, like the way we all danced to Punk Rock bands, was a way to resist my own vulnerability; now, I’ve come to embrace my weaknesses and let it be an undercurrent in my work. The work is an open- case investigation that delves into the mysteries of our existence. As for answers, I’m open to suggestion; the goal is really to start a conversation, which is the first step to being understood.

 

untitled 1986 copy

Mixed media drawing 1985

CAUGHT IN A WAVE 1989? copy
Drawing done at Cornell, 1986
IMG_4597 copy

Black painting, 1987

IMG_4569 copy

Graphite and paint on paper, 1987

IMG_1882 copy

Ink and paint on Kraft paper

IMG_1840 copy

Mixed media drawing 1986

documentation of work done while a resident at PLAYA
park preserve   boundary project

The Glacier’s Receding 2015

Scuttle

 

 

 

As readers may recall, In 2012 I suffered a hand injury while working on a large outdoor sculpture. It wasn’t so bad I couldn’t do anything but the pain made working with wood and metal difficult and joyless. The injury became the catalyst for a shift in my practice: I steered my process towards one that embraced the ephemeral and consisted of actions or interventions in the landscape that I recorded with my camera. Although the hand has now healed and I am able to once again make objects, I began to question the need to do so. As a maker I have brought into being hundreds of sculptures, functional items, and building projects. Of the sculpture, about half has been sold or given away, and what remains, including a bevy of larger outdoor works, either sit in my yard or adorn my house, which has become my own private Merzbau. I have found homes for several large works, mostly loans to art parks, galleries or other public or semi-public spaces, but typically with no guarantee of security or maintenance. Moving and installing the larger work can take the better part of a day and I’m pretty good at moving these beasts, which weigh up to 500 pounds, but I get tired of dealing with these things on a repeated basis for little or no return.

 

Late in 2012 I had to yet again find a home for a piece—Steel Canoe— that I was actually pretty fond of but in terms of maintenance was difficult. It had been damaged at its last installation and was badly in need of refinishing. It was really an excellent piece that had been featured in several shows and cover photos and I thought someone would have bought it, but, for whatever reason, it never sold. I was living in an apartment at the time and had no yard of my own. So, embracing my new direction, I decided to turn it into a performance I titled: Scuttle.

 

Scuttle is word that typically refers to deliberate sinking of a vessel, usually in retreat, as in battle, and sometimes used to block a waterway. The deliberateness of the act is a way to reclaim power in a losing situation; rather than have your ship sunk, you sink it yourself in a controlled manner, with an option to reclaim it later.

 

I felt like I needed to retreat from this onslaught of heavy objects of my own making and to take control. With the help of my good friend Daniel and his sons, I floated Steel Canoe for one last time out into the icy November waters of Cayuga Lake (In a conceptual twist on the relationship between functional objects and art, it was a sculpture but also a fully functional, albeit, very heavy boat) and there, not far from shore, we sank it, with the cameras rolling.

 

The plan was simple but as things go when working in nature, there are elements you can’t control. First, It was seemed like it was opening day of some fishing season and boats were trolling back and forth incessantly. We wanted to be inconspicuous as a possible, but on the lake there are no bushes to hide behind so we had to wait and wait and wait and then work quickly. Second, sinking a vessel is a violent affair: at first the boat resisted my efforts to subdue it (I drilled holes in the bottom) and it needed a forceful assist; then, once the waters took hold, it rapidly succumbed to the deep with a final belching of trapped air that made it seem as it’s life was extinguished. It was all very violent. In the chaos, documentation was not what it should have been. The last part of the plan was sinking it in not so deep water where I typically swim so that I would see it resting peacefully on the bottom from time to time. This was the part of the action that included the possibility of retrieval; perhaps in a few years the zebra mussel-encrusted hull would take on new meaning and I could pull it out to display it anew. Yet, since that day, despite several attempts, I have never found it. It is lost to the mystery of the lake (or perhaps salvaged by some fisherman who saw it on his sonar).

 

I have stopped thinking about Steel Canoe and have even made more heavy sculptures since then, but recently I have been forced again to a full retreat from making big things. After 32 years of maintaining a fully functional studio/ workspace I am forced out of my current shop. The building will be razed to make way for a new medical center, leaving in its wake several small businesses scrambling. As I balance the financial burden of maintaining a shop with my needs as an artist, I realize that the schedule of work projects I do to make money so I can pay for the shop leaves me little time to make art. In this paradigm, the practice of making things becomes self-defeating; all of the effort to maintain the tools and workspace and to pay rent and overhead saps all of my creative energy needed to make artwork.

 

For now, most of the equipment is going into a storage unit. I will work small and ephemeral, draw and paint, and maybe do clay figure studies. I will get back to that creative space where the time and energy spent on preparing to create, doesn’t overwhelm the creative act. I am going to embrace this new period in my career and make the best of it. I am scuttling the shop but this time I won’t lose the key.

        

           

For the Love of Steel

Like most metal workers, I have a love-hate relationship with steel. It is heavy, dirty and loud to work with. Welding involves all kinds of hazards and assaults to the body: burns, cuts, and metal slivers, the fumes of welding and the dust from the resin-bonded grinding disc. I have tinnitus from years of grinding metal and a piece of titanium in my wrist, surgically implanted after a drilling accident. In the winter, my shop is freezing and it’s a constant battle between turning the fan on or conserving what heat there is.

 

Oh, yes, I wear safety gear—when I can stand it: safety glasses, ear protectors, welding helmet, face shield, respirator and an assortment of gloves. It’s a constant on-off-on-off and not everything is compatible; hearing protectors don’t fit under a welding helmet, respirators fog up the safety glasses, and gloves make certain fine task impossible. None of it is comfortable.

So, at times, I hate what I love. Like yesterday when my task was to clean the mill scale off of a 1,000 pounds of mild steel for a new sculpture in my Landforms series. Mill scale is a hard, black crust on the steel that comes from the heating and cooling of the production process. It actually protects it for a while but is a poor surface to paint over and, thus has to be removed. It is so hard that it resists sanding and it has to be sand blasted or removed with acid. I don’t have a blasting set-up so I am stuck the latter.

 

Steel is a poorly understood material. Everyone knows it is hard and strong but what they probably don’t know is that its strength comes from its malleability. It bends before it breaks and it can easily be persuaded to take on new forms. The most misunderstood aspect is the oxidation process. Oxidation, like combustion, is the combination of oxygen with the fuel material, in this case iron. Usually it is slow, but with enough heat and a jet of oxygen, the steel actually burns—which is how torch cutting works. So, while steel is strong and versatile, it also has this transient quality; when metal work leaves the shop, the goal is to have some permanent coating on it so that it doesn’t rust away, but, left alone, it will go through an organic transformation with moments of beauty so fleeting that few of us get to fully appreciate it.

One of my Landforms sculpture groupings with a slowly rusting waxed surface.

The black is mill scale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To remove the mill scale I wash it with acid (a process that involves a kiddy-pool). In doing so I expose the soft underbelly of the plates and get to witness this instant transformation of the patina. There are subtle greens, magentas and yellows, like a color-field painting. Once I rinse the metal, it instantly starts to burn with soft orange haze of rust. It is hard to describe and harder to photograph. It is at this point that I wish I could hold it, but I can’t. Sometimes I try by using a wax finish, but for outdoor works in public display, a slowly rusting finish just doesn’t fly. People want control and permanence. They expect steel to hold fast against the elements and for surface to be predictable. They will never see the soft, delicate, fleeting surface of the steel that I love.

 

a 3×4 foot plate fresh from the acid bath

Subtle colors on the rapidly changing surface

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An orange haze of rust

This makes me think of painting

The Moods of the Lake

cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16Hour after hour, day after day, I have been sitting and watching the lake as it cycles through its endless moods. The light constantly changes, the wind shifts, and the waves rise and fall. My observations start before sunrise, when an orange thread first appears over the hills to east, and go into darkness, when all of the man-made lights compete with the lights in the night sky. When the wind is still and the lake is mirror-smooth, the town of Aurora, three and a half miles across, looks like a dollhouse collection set on the hills. When the wind kicks up white caps and the waves pound the shore, the lake becomes an ominous beast. The waves are not huge by ocean standards, but, in contrast to the scale of the landscape, they have a power that demands respect. Boats caught in the white caps struggle against the irregular rhythm and can be heard surging through the churning water. Swimming or canoeing becomes out of the question.

 

The direction of the waves works with the sun to create infinite patterns of color and light. Shifting currents can make the water a pea soup, so opaque one day that I can’t see my hands when I swim, and, then, clear as a cup of green tea the next, revealing a forest of weeds and fish before the bottom drops away to milky-bluish depths. From where I sit, the lake is over three hundred feet deep in the center—modest by ocean standards but deep enough to hold it’s mysteries.

cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16

During my stay at the lake house, I took hundreds of photos of the lake, trying to record every mood, every nuance. A moment frozen in time cannot capture the noisy energy of waves; videos and painting seem better suited. I am trying to figure out the visual pattern that allows us to read them as waves. There are layers of color, light, shadow and reflection. The pattern repeats but is never the same. Quick, expressive marks capture the energy but gloss over the intricate lace-like reflections that a more careful study will reveal. I suspect that any one approach will fail and that the only way to know the lake is to study it thru a multiplicity of experiences and to employ equally diverse means of expression. Perhaps I will need poetry and dance to fully explain all that I come to learn.

 

When something presents a seemingly simple surface, but under scrutiny reveals an intriguing depth and complexity, I get drawn in. Like swimmer on a hot summer’s day, I am ready for the plunge.

cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16cayuga-lake-091416_0539cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16cayuga-lake-091416_0554cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16lake-painting_3lake-painting

 

The Lake

cayuga-lake-091616_0631For longer than I can remember, the lake has been central to my life. To any one local to the area “the lake” refers to Cayuga, that beautiful long glacial trough filled with glistening blue-green water. Although we rarely speak it’s full name in direct reference, every local business, event, and organization possible borrows the moniker. The name originates in the people who made this area home for centuries before they were brutally unseated by Sullivan. His charge, from General Washington, was to make way for settlement by the revolutionary soldiers who would later come and establish themselves in the neat one-mile-square boxes that were imposed upon the rolling terrain.

 

In the view from space, the Finger Lakes are easy to discern; Cayuga, the longest, would be the index finger. By referencing the adjacent lakes, towns are easy to find but hard to get to since one must travel around each finger to travel east and west. Ferries, which at one time were deemed essential, haven’t plied these waters in a century. Roads, which often follow the grid that Simeon DeWitt, the Surveyor General of New York, devised as a means to divide and distribute the land, have names that give a hint to the ancestry of those early settlers: McCulloch, MacDougall, Allen, Skinner, Yarnell, Swick, and so on. The townships themselves, in a quirk of history, were given classical Greek and Roman names by Robert Harpur, a clerk in DeWitt’s office who preferred the poetic to the pragmatic simplicity of numbers: Ovid, Romulus, Ulysses…There are eleven or twelve Finger Lakes in all, depending on who is counting. It is fitting that the names of seven of the lakes pay homage to the original inhabitants: Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, Canandaigua, Owasco, and Otisco. Ignoring all of the lake houses, docks and other incursions on the shore, the long bodies of water are the landscape features that would be most recognizable to a Haudenosaunee from five centuries ago. The lakes are the most dominant feature and, more than anything else, define the region and its inhabitants.

 

As I ponder these thoughts about the lake, I am sitting on a lake-house deck overlooking the water. The soft crashing of the waves on the worn flat stones is the sound track to my ruminations. Some people around here own lake houses; everyone else who grew up here, in the land between the lakes, has dreamed about them: either renting one for a week or two, owning a little summer cottage, or having a full blown year-round house on the water. Until now, I have never realized this dream. Through fortunate circumstance, I have two weeks to spend idly staring at the water and forgetting about work and a heap of other obligations.

 

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My mother grew up connected to the water on the North Shore of Long Island. She instilled in us a love for the water, taking us to the lake when we were younger. She always dreamed about getting back into sailing, which she did with great proficiency in her youth. In 1965, my parents bought 10 acres, not on the water, but across the highway from it. The modernist house my father designed would have sweeping views up the lake from the third floor balcony. My father lost his job, the first of many layoffs, and the dream deflated like a kid’s party balloon left lingering on the living room ceiling until it simply fell back to the floor, where it was left unnoticed, unmentioned, forgotten.

 

I have never lost the dream and have kept my eye on lakefront properties, but, as the region has boomed in popularity, lakefront prices have swelled to the point of impossibility. Cottages used to be simple, unadorned, summer havens owned by locals, but, they are now becoming the exclusive retreats of wealthy imports. Locals would offset their tax burden by renting weekly during the warm season (most cottages were not winterized), but the new arrivals mostly keep their newly restored lake “cottages” to themselves. Thus, access to the lake for the common working folk, aside from a few parks, is becoming harder and harder. To finally spend two solid weeks, without interruption, at the lake, after 55 years of contemplation, is a dream come true for me.

cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16

Affording to be an Artist

When I was a little kid I was told I was going to be an artist. Paintbrushes, pencils and drawing pads were thrust my way. By the time I was in grade school I was known as the class artist. I drew Snoopy for other kids and, at home, drew copies of nude women from art books. The embers of my father’s burning desire to be an artist, something he too felt as a child, were reignited in the possibility that I would pursue the career he sidetracked to become an architect, a more practical choice.

 

So, I went to art school. First, to New Paltz State, and then, after dismissing the lack of seriousness in my partying classmates, on to a real art school: The Maine College of Art. My parents were legally bankrupt; I paid for school entirely myself by working summers as a billboard painter. After getting my BFA, I went to Cornell for my MFA, working as teaching assistant and a house painter to pay the bills. Although some of my classmates and friends came from incredibly wealthy families, none of that rubbed off on me. In fact, I usually paid the bar tab. After school I continued to work in the trades doing blue collar work: ornamental plaster, house painting and carpentry, until I got a part time teaching gig at Ithaca College. But that didn’t pay very much either. After 12 years, my position was dissolved in an acidic dispute over equality and pay, so, I went back to the trades where I still work today.

 

During this entire period I have kept up my studio practice: I’ve had shows, won awards and residencies and been invited to speak. I am continuously making new work that explores how art is essential to sifting out meaning in this complex and chaotic world. Now, more than ever I feel my work is on the verge of something, that my sifting is producing more nuggets of gold and less dross. Although my practice has dramatically shifted, I am getting to the core of what I have been searching for my whole life. It’s not drawing Snoopy, but, then again, I’m sure Charles Schultz was an early influence .

 

I’m writing this as I should be writing yet another statement of intent for yet another grant application. This, at a time when I should be heading towards bed to be rested for yet another day of hard work. It goes on like this, month after month , year after year, trying to get recognition, a few crumbs of funding, or a foot in the door so that maybe, one day, I won’t have to lift my hammer to pay the bills. So that I won’t have juggle art and survival.

 

I keep track of who wins grants, or gets major shows or opportunities and increasingly I’ve become wearily aware that most are people with the means to be an artist- people with money, support and connections. Artist who don’t have to work full time to survive, who have the time and money to not only make art, but to go places, see things, and meet the right people. I start to wonder: “can I afford to be an artist? or, should I just throw in the towel?”

 

Unfortunately, this digression will not meet the requirements for the letter of intent I need to write tonight. Nor, is it 2500 characters or less. If do I get this $3,000 grant, it may buy me a few weeks of blissful creativity- but, not if I don’t apply.

“What Are You Doing?”

 

 

flow project

“What are you doing?”

 

That’s a typical question I get from bystanders when I am out in the woods trying to make my art. Today, an acquaintance asked about the long rope I had over my shoulder as I headed out to a favorite isolated creek. “I don’t know,” I told her. “Really?” she insisted. “really, no clue”.

 

I typically work alone so I can avoid questions like this. Making art is a rather private affair, and I feel stifled when I know someone is looking over my shoulder. It’s hard, in ten words or less, to explain my entire process.

 

The truth is, when I am being truly creative, I don’t want to know what I am doing. I want to be open the situation at hand, listen to the site and follow my gut. It’s almost the opposite of when I show up at a job site, where each stage of construction is carefully planned and the outcome is established long before we start. Sure, I’m going to bring some tools and materials- such as the last minute decision to grab that rope; the same rope that I salvaged from Nova Scotia while making art there; the rope, that when wet, as it would be by the end of the day, stinks like the bottom of the ocean. What I take is only a guess as to what I’ll use. Planning, while essential for some aspects of my practice, is the death knell of creative genesis.

 

When I was a kid, loner that I was, I’d sneak off and head to the creek behind our ten acres on the edge of town. There, I’d engage in all kinds of projects: making damns, diverting water, catching crayfish and taking an inventory of aquatic life. It was my world. Like most kids, my world was distinct from the world of my parents. My typical response to queries about what I had been doing: “nuthin”. It was not so much that I was trying to be secretive, I just knew that there was no way in hell they’d understand the importance of what I was doing. I guess that way of working, of exploring and playing in the woods and creeks, hasn’t really changed. For me, making art is all about getting back to that kid mind.

 

The interesting thing about my little exchange in the parking lot was, that I learned that the preserve was in the process of expanding it’s boundaries and that surveyors had just been there, flagging trees to mark the invisible boundaries. This ties into recent work I have doing which explores how boundary lines and the parceling of the landscape have helped define our relationship to the land.

 

The only difference between what I do now and what I did as kid, is that, now, I try to weave meaning into my actions. I take into account the history, geography and ecology of a place and try to make sense out of how human activity intersects with the natural. I come home and write about it and pour over my documentary photographs and try to make an exhibition. I try to figure out what the hell I really am doing. And then (and only then), I share it with the world.

 

Flow

A few months ago I had a crisis of heart. My EKG was reading “acute ischemia,” which, in lay terms, means: a heart attack was likely. It turned out that there is nothing wrong with my heart, that I just have a wonky EKG, but the doctors had me scared for a few days. I actually left the hospital against their advice (that death was imminent!).To ease my anxiety over the situation I went to a favorite spot in the woods, near the headwaters of Six Mile Creek, to take some photos.

Usually, when I venture out, camera in hand, I try not to have an agenda. I like to see what possibilities are presented to me and then explore them. On this day, in which darkness was rapidly approaching, I found myself standing in the middle of the creek, with my expensive camera and tripod perched on slippery rocks. As the light faded away I had to shoot longer and longer exposures; the flowing water began to look more and more ethereal, especially when contrasted with the few static objects in the view.

While I was in the hospital I had a series of tests done, which included imaging of the heart using dyes or nuclear material injected into my blood, and an echocardiogram. Like an expectant mother watching a sonogram, being able to see the innards of my ticker working away in a live view fascinated me; it was almost worth having to endure the whole ordeal. Whenever I have x-rays, or MRIs done, (I’ve had way too many!) I like to get copies so I can study and even draw from them. This time was no exception. In art school we studied anatomy as a part of figure drawing; I love learning about the body and understanding what we look like under our skin.

The water flowing in the creek felt like the blood in my arteries, in its movement was life. I needed a way to show it. I began to pick up red leaves and throw them in the water as my camera clicked off 2-second exposures. The red blur captured the motion; the fuzzy details and contrast of the waterfalls were like the images from the hospital. Later, I came back with red surveyor’s tape and let it run out in the creek for a few hundred feet. As I traced it with my camera, each image became more exciting.

It is moments like these when I am sure of my vision. Without forethought, I have woven a perfect thread through my work. You may recall an earlier series I did on the heart: a study of the origins of the ubiquitous valentine in contrast with the actual, anatomical organ. This was a perfect recap of that, but with the angle that the crucial flow of blood circulating through our hearts and bodies is like the flow of water through the creeks and rivers. We are all dependent on the flow of life giving fluid.

I plan to keep working on this series, playing in the creek and documenting my process. I’ve included a few here for your enjoyment.

flow project

 

 

flow project

 

cardiac cath image 2

 

park preserve water patterns

 

park preserve water patterns

 

 

echo copy copy

 

 

 

 

 

Billboards

In so much that an artist does, past work experiences becomes a source for new art. I think about how my past jobs inform and relate to current themes in my work. I’ve had a lot of different jobs-ornamental plasterer, carpenter, welder, house painter, sauna builder, college professor, and art preparator. The first steady job I had was painting billboards during my summers off from college.

Each May, I would leave school as soon as possible and head back to the foothills of the Adirondacks where I had a job with Coe Advertising in Barneveld, NY. I suffered through living with my parents while I worked 40-60 hour weeks, until I earned enough cash to pay off the bursar when I returned to school in September.

My boss, Ralph Coe, knew I was his golden boy the day I showed up for an interview for a job he hadn’t posted. I was compensated well: by the second summer my weekly paycheck equaled my father’s-who was not only an architect, but ironically had once painted signs himself and taught me how to letter. In 1972, when I was 11,  we painted the banner “ We Love the Blue Raiders,” which swung over Main Street during the Trumansburg homecoming parade. Painting signs was not without its personal conflict: although I didn’t care for football and the charade of the homecoming pageant, I loved making that banner. I hated billboards in general, especially the ones which interrupted the roadside view as you drove towards the wilderness, but I loved the job. If you drove to Old Forge and beyond at any time between 1980 and 1985, you saw my artwork. My moral justification was: if  those signs were going to be there, they should finance my art career. Now, I look back on many of them with a nostalgic fondness; they were the last of an era, soon to be replaced by digital avatars pasted up by hard hat crews with no artistic training.
ok corral_1
The last remaining sign that I painted: a back-lit plexiglass light box sign for the OK Corral, in Remsen, was still in place last year, even though the diner was boarded up. Besides being a functional beacon to highway travelers, it became a local cultural icon whose irony was probably most obvious to me. The crude painting of a cowboy on a bucking bronco announced a place only imagined to most travelers in those parts. It did, however, capture the boom and bust spirit of the lower Adirondacks, a region where starting a business was  as risky as picking a bar fight in Tombstone, Arizona; home of the original OK Corral. I called it the “culture of failure”. I painted signs for many places that were struggling. As we said in the sign business, a good sign will only get the customer through the door-the first time.

blue spuce motel

pioneer inn

I painted billboards and signs for all sorts of businesses up and down Route 12 and 28. Places with endearing cornball touristy names such as: The Buffalo Head Inn, Deer Meadows Motel, and The Rendezvous. Most of these were one-of-a-kind signs, painted in place, with me balanced on a twelve-inch wide plank, juggling cans of paint, brushes, and spray paint. Sometimes I got lucky and did the panels in the shop, which we would put up later. They ranged in size from twenty-four to forty feet long. My layout tools were simple and  “old school”: a wooden yardstick, tape measure, grease pencil, a string compass and chalk line. Sometimes I’d make a pattern in the shop, using a tracing wheel to poke holes in the paper and then use a chalk bag to dust it onto the billboard, but usually I’d just sketch things out in place. I’d work from a postcard sized design–usually completely out of proportion to the actual sign-that Ralph would hand to me as he sent me on my way. After that, I’d be my own for two to three days. People were happy with my work and despite my long hair, which drew comments straight out of a Bob Seger song, I was a celebrity at many a diner—where we ate for free since they owed Ralph so much money.
whitesboro spring     tough case
I liked  painting cars and machinery and animals: my airbrushed (spray painted) version of the famous “Buffalo Head” was never surpassed and I did  a pretty good moose for the Big Moose Inn,  but I was terrible at people. Lettering was pretty straightforward, but it was the spacing that was critical. When you kern in Illustrator, you can tweak the whole line but with paint it was one letter at a time. A “turp” soaked rag was my eraser and stepping back to view the work was never an easy option when on a plank twenty feet in the air. Counter to intuition, serifs made lettering easier; the little flags created flow and compensated for awkward spacing. Focusing on one letter at a time and working forwards and backwards from the center made it pretty easy to misspell words. I can’t tell you how many times I looked up from the front seat of the truck during lunch and was horror-stricken by what I had written. Maybe that’s why cars always honked at me. Some days I’d get so absorbed in my work I’d forget lunch altogether.

one scaffolding rig I used

one scaffolding rig I used

Now I think about my billboard experience as an introduction to a scale that was larger than anything possible in a studio. The works were literally interventions in the landscape, interrupters of the view and with a boldness that could compensate for the velocity of the viewer. Likewise, In the world of art galleries, works have to compete with an increasingly  distracted audience in a hurry to go nowhere. Art has become big, bold, and splashy. In the past, art demanded at least a moment of contemplation. Perhaps billboards can used  to recapture the attention of a world zooming by. In my head I have a project to (temporarily) reclaim some of those billboards and paint images from a past era when traveling included activities such looking out the car window and marveling at the world passing by. These images, showing scenes from my own history, will simultaneously engage and confuse viewers, much like the simplistic logos of so many failed diners: “fine food, complete menu,” leaving them with the question: “Is this art?”