Oil sketches

In order to paint portraits of those visitors to Window Studio who want to be part of the project, but might not be able to afford a painting, or have the time to come back to pose, I have started just taking photographs while we are talking, which I then develop in oil sketches, completed in one or two sessions, max. The first of these was of Julien, a young man who had washed the windows for me once, and who told me that he was also an artist and a musician.

Julien drawing at Window StudioAnother day he came back and spent some time drawing. He said he mostly drew cartooning, not much from observation, though his high school art teacher had encouraged him, and clearly he was capable. We looked at some of Leonardo DaVinci’s drawings and talked about how drawing could be a way of analyzing the world, that Leonardo was interested in figuring out human proportions, the structure of the human body, and so forth. Julien said that he was thinking of studying to be a medical technician, that his father in particular thought this would be a good idea, “Because people are always going to get sick, and need to be taken care of.”

I told him that my son was studying to be an EMT for the same reason, that he wanted to be able help people in an emergency, and that there would be jobs.

“So that would be a good thing,” Julien agreed brightly at first. Then he appeared to think about it more. “But you know, it could smell bad, all that blood and stuff, people be nasty…”

“If you weren’t a medical technician, what would you like to do?”

“Be a singer! I’m already a singer, R&B…” He sang a bit, but his voice was hoarse. He cleared his throat and apologized, “I’ve been sick.”


Halloween at Window Studio

Lots of trick-or-treaters stopped by at Window Studio on Halloween. We had to go out and get more candy at the Family Dollar, and even then ran out, much to the disappointment of late-comers. Since most of the kids who have been coming to the Thursday workshop wanted to be out in their costumes, the classes were quieter than usual. But Jerome spent some time helping carve a pumpkin.

Jerome draws a face to carve on the pumpkin.

Jerome draws a face to carve on the pumpkin.

Ever since he first stopped in on his way home to his grandmother’s on his scooter, Jerome has been one of Window Studio’s most faithful visitors. Sometime he stays to do artwork, sometimes not, though he is always interested in what I am working on. He was especially pleased that I had finally painted the portrait of him that I’d promised, based on a photo I’d taken one day when he and his friend Taneri came over. He had wanted to look scary, like one of the super hero/super villains that all the boys love to draw.

Now Taneri and his older brother Javon often come with Jerome to the workshop. They are always ready to do “splatter” paintings with bright acrylic paints on canvases that I then use for oil sketch portraits. (Jerome’s portrait is painted on the canvas that he had prepared in this way.) Splatter paintings have been a way to discover shapes that then suggest forms in far more interesting ways than one could have arrived at intentionally. Sort of like watching clouds to see all sorts of forms that come to mind, it has also been fun to compare the different things that each of us sees. One of the boys saw a woman’s torso, while another saw the same shapes as suggesting an old man’s face, and a third saw mountains and trees. We all argued and laughed over which it really was!



Something different

Recently in between painting portraits of other people at Window Studio, I painted this “Self portrait with Lion.” In it, the glass security barrier at the Portland Zoo reflects zoo visitors as we contemplate a lion, or lioness actually, in the brilliant sunshine. At the time, I felt a yearning for, yet separation from the lion’s beauty and latent power. The puzzle-like quality of the image communicates something of the ambiguity of my own—and modern, technological, camera-bearing humanity’s—relationship to the natural world, which is of course not entirely natural, since this is still the zoo after all! Nevertheless, though it is captive, the lion is still a magnificent, regal beast and awakened a sense of latent aspiration for freedom that is pent up in me as well. It also reminded me of William Blake’s famous poem:

Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forest of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And What shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

—The Tyger (1794) From Songs of Experience by William Blake, (1757–1827)

Art workshops

Sirus and Sam at Window Studio.

The summer has been a busy time at Window Studio with art workshops attracting an increasing number of participants of all ages. Sam and Sirus come every week. Sam, age 12, works on his animation drawing while younger brother Sirus uses oil pastels and water-colors to create his imaginary animal, a combination of a snake and donkey, called a “Snadonkey”. Art sessions are complemented with reading stories and a trip to the corner store for a snack.

Chantal, already an accomplished designer of sneakers has also been coming regularly. She wasn’t that interested in studying art at college, but started creating hand-painted sneakers which she sells. Her love of patterns has led to a wide ranging exploration of abstract art. Together we’ve looked at the dense variety of marks in Van Gogh’s landscapes, the combination of colored forms with sinuous black line in Kandinsky and the gestural rhythm of Jackson Pollock’s paint throwing in Lavender Mist. A field trip to the Museum of Modern Art is in order!

And Karinna, who says she was always in trouble for drawing all over everything she could lay her hands on, including the walls, has reconnected with that inner child. After suppressing her creative instincts for so long, it sometimes seems hard for her to get her hand to do what she wants it to. But she worked with intense concentration on creating a color wheel and used it to develop her own color pattern.

These are only a few of the many people of all ages who have come in saying, “I used to love to draw, I won prizes for art in school, I always wished that I had been able to keep doing it, I can’t believe there’s an opportunity to make art like this.”

All ages

All ages are welcome!

Fellow Artists

(In memory of Bill Traylor, and all the other self-taught artists who might only consider themselves “painters.”)

It was always part of the plan to have other artists involved in Window Studio, but this has worked out in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I had thought it would be a matter of putting out an open call on artist networks both in the neighborhood and more broadly, and I may still do this. But actually the involvement of other artists has come about much more organically. As with everything so far at Window Studio, it has involved other artists stopping by.

At least ten other artists have come in, if not more. In some cases they have shared their artwork in sketchbooks or on their mobiles, and I am hoping to be able to post it at some point. But in the meantime, this is the story of one fellow artist, Jimmy, though he would say he was only a painter.

Jimmy was going by a few weeks ago, rolling an industrial sanding machine along the sidewalk when he noticed me working, parked his machine, and came in. He had a craggy face with a lively, slightly wall-eyed glance. He told me that he was 72 years old and loved to paint.”But you’re a real artist,” he exclaimed enthusiastically. “I just paint landscapes, not people the way you do.”

“Some painters only paint landscapes,” I said. “Or that is what they really do best.  Do you go outside to paint?”

“Oh no, I just paint what’s in my head,” he laughed. “People seem to like my paintings though. One woman even bought a bunch of them, for $40 each! Can you believe that!”

He told me he’d been painting ever since he had retired, though he still worked picking up and delivering industrial machines all over the neighborhood.

“I’d like to see your paintings sometime. No one sees the world inside your head unless you paint it. I couldn’t paint those pictures, only you can.”

“But I just paint. You’re a real artist!” He insisted on this so firmly it was as though he wouldn’t let it be denied, even by me. “The pictures look so real, like the people are going to come right out of them.” He pointed at the portrait of Will. “It’s just like life. Exactly like life,” he exclaimed, but then kept looking at the picture.

“…But it is more than life…It’s not just the person in the painting, it is also you – the artist – because you made it.”

“And it is also you, because you are looking at it,” I added.

“That’s why it’s art,” he said.


Family Portrait

Last week I started my first official (paid!) commission at Window Studio. It is for Mr. Michael who works at the shelter across the street. A few weeks ago, he brought in a small family photograph taken at a Christmas celebration and asked if I could do a painting of it. I said I would give it a try.

It has been a new experience working from this kind of photograph. I have never met the people in it, except for Mr. Michael himself, so I found myself trying to feel out what these people are like, their characters and their family dynamic just based on their expressions and subtle body clues in what is a formal posed photo.

I felt that the little girl in the center – with her shimmering yellow dress and bold, petulant gaze – was the darling of the family, while the tallest boy, in his too-large suit hoped to grow into the family protector. And the young woman looks at once proud of being a mother to these fine children, but is still a beauty and a bit of a coquette herself. Maybe I am making all this up as I go along, but it has been fun to partly discover, partly create a visual narrative of pose and gesture for this picture.

And then on Thursday, Mr. Michael and the oldest son stopped in to see how the picture was coming along. They seemed pleased, and even a bit amazed to see themselves in the painting. Even though it is still not finished, I could tell from their reaction that I had captured something right, if not everything. They confirmed that as the only girl with three brothers, the girl in the center was indeed the darling of the family. I had worried that I had made the oldest son look older than he was in the photo, where part of the poignancy is that he still has the half look of a boy while wearing this grown-up suit. But it turns out that the photo is a few years old, so in fact he does look older now, closer to the painting.

“But still, even though I think you are a serious person,  I made you look too serious in the painting,” I told him. His serious face dissolved in a wonderful smile. It’s that smile that I want to capture somehow!

Portrait of Mother and Son

How to know if a painting is finished, that is the question! I think I’m ready to let go of this one, though there are always a few more little tweaks and adjustments that are possible. And when one is working from a photograph as a source, there is always the temptation to make it exactly like the original photographic image. But somehow in doing that, the picture ceases to breathe for me as a painting. There is a fine line in realistic painting between exact verisimilitude and the suggestion of it, even the illusion of it. I love the tension between seeing an image that looks like it could be real but when you look closer you see it is really paint. Still I have this urge to make it perfectly match the photo.

Instead, I remind myself of the advice that I received once from the artist Susanna Coffey in a critique – that a paintings doesn’t need to be perfect, it needs to be “good enough”. While this might seem like a recipe for mediocrity, I think what she meant by “good enough” was that when a painting achieves its essential aesthetic goal and communicates it to the viewer, then it is “good enough”. The rest of the details don’t need to be perfect.

So I am calling this one finished, which means that I will be calling James and taking the portrait over to give to his mom, a little late for Mother’s Day, but good enough!


The Sign!

The sign!I spent Mother’s Day setting up the new sign for Window Studio purchased with Puffin Foundation grant money, which is really going to increase the visibility of the project, as are the new postcards I just got last week. I left a bunch at the corner store, another batch at the barber shop, which I’ve been told have all been given out already! Not a problem, since I have 3,000 of them!

Mother’s Day Special

James came in to Window Studio a couple of weeks ago. After first wanting maybe a portrait of himself and his wife of 20 years for their soon-to-be new home, or then maybe one of the grandkids (though he was only my age and looked younger), he then said what he’d really like was one of his mother. Even though by now I have come to expect that most men who come in – and it is mostly men that come in – want a portrait of their mothers, the way James spoke about his mother particularly moved me. He said he didn’t think that she could come in to sit because she had been quite sick lately. He said she had the virus, then something with her liver, or her kidneys – James has a way of speaking that spins off on all kinds of tangents, which he even apologized for “Sometime I lose my words,” he said.

So he described how they had given his mother a big surprise 70th Birthday Party (even though it was only actually her 69th). Family came from all around, a real family reunion, the kind you only get at a funeral, he said, but since they hadn’t wanted the reunion to be at her funeral, they decided to hold it now. They even had two cakes, one that said “69” and the other “70”

“Because my mother is special…”

His eyes teared up in a way that belied the simplicity of his words. Right there and then I decided if she would let me, that this would be my Mother’s Day Special.

And so, I found myself last week sitting at the bedside of Claudette, a woman I had never met before and yet felt like I’d known, if not all my life, then in some essential way that didn’t require details of experience. She emanated a comfort  – about herself, despite being ill (“Just draw me as I am, I don’t mind”) and about me, despite being a complete stranger, and about her kids who would come in and out as I sketched.

First her son James lay on the bed beside her for awhile. When he answered the phone, he told the caller, “Mom’s having her portrait done,” just as if he were saying “Mom’s having her hair done.” And then her daughter Tabitha introduced herself saying “I might not look like a daughter, but I am Claudette’s daughter” and indeed at first glance she appeared to be a handsome, dapper young man (“I wear boxers, and I wear them tight!”)

I asked Claudette how many children she had. She said five, but then explained there were four – James was the oldest, then I am not sure of the rest of the order. But her youngest son she said, had been killed three years ago. I said I was very sorry, that it must be the worst kind of pain, and as a parent myself I couldn’t imagine anything worse. I didn’t want to ask how he’d been killed, so sat and sketched, the silence eddying between us till it found words.

“I had wanted to make the trip down there,” at last she continued. “But I was in the hospital at that time and the doctor said, ‘Ms. Jackson, you aren’t well enough to make this trip.’ Still, I just wish I could have asked them, ‘How can you take something that can never be given back?’ I just wish I could know that, so that I could have some – what’s it called, I can’t remember, what’s the word?”

Her thoughts flowed again into realms that had no words, the way her son’s sometimes did, and mine followed.

“Peace? Peace of mind?” she ventured, but then said, “No, not peace. Closure. That’s the word I wanted to say. But I don’t have it.” She paused. “Life goes on. But I don’t have closure.”

There was much more in the two hours I spent with her and her family, bits of interactions, details of information, each in themselves slight or fleeting, but woven together in a rich complexity of wordless lines.