Making some kind of art has been a part of my life since I was a kid in Baytown and Livingston Texas. I still have some little oil paintings I did when I was nine or ten, they are not very impressive even for a ten year old, but they were a start.
In grade school I was the kid that the teachers would assign the blackboard mural for holiday motifs. I continued in Junior High School to take whatever art or craft courses schools in blue collar Texas towns had back then. I did have a knack for copying images from magazines and comics, but I was not exposed to any real visual art culture till I got to Austin in the fall of 1961.
I enrolled in the art department at the University of Texas, with some vague idea of learning how to do commercial art. I really didn’t do especially well that year and did not return the next fall. I spent that year off working on the pipeline, saving money to go back to U.T. the following year. Taking the required art history classes I discovered Northern Renaissance painting and Surrealism and something clicked. I started imagining and executing pictures of “interesting” events and situations. I worked hard, took all the life drawing classes offered and gradually became more skilled at the rendering needed to pull off the images I was trying for. I had some fine teachers who put up with and encouraged me, so the next two years I improved a whole lot.
I ended up junior year and was back in Baytown, getting ready to go off pipelining again that summer when I got a phone call that I had been offered a scholarship to attend Skowhegan School in Maine. It is a very special place, and an honor to be invited. So, I left to work in Ohio and Kentucky, then in late July drove on to Maine, not knowing what I was in for.
Founded by a number of well known east coast artists in the late 40s, Skowhegan School brought together the top students from art schools and universities all over the country and working successful artists, mostly from the New York art scene. For me, as for many before and since, it was a life changing experience. The encouragement I received from artists Willard Cummings, John Button, Ben Shahn, Jack Levine, Richard Lindner and especially Alfred Leslie gave me the confidence to get serious about being an artist.
Back in Texas in the fall of 1965, I had a very productive senior year, I also started to exhibit at Meredith Long’s Houston Gallery, a real honor that the smart-ass young hot shot I was took completely for granted. Now I was intent on getting my piece of the big time in New York City. So, not sticking around for graduation ceremonies I left for New York to seek my fortune. With my buddy Noel Singer from Skowhegan I got a loft on the lower east side, at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge. The Vietnam War was in full swing and I was not interested in getting involved (drafted) so I got into the graduate program at Hunter College. I had a good head of steam so I continued making pieces of my own as well as class work for the once a week classes up town. Considering all the diversions I indulged in, I finished a lot of pieces, small shaped panels and larger shaped canvases. The panel paintings were done with acrylics, used as traditional egg tempura had been used for centuries and were very time consuming to execute,The traditional techniques were combined with formal ideas about composition and formats that were very cutting edge for the time.
However, In early spring student draft deferments were discontinued and I went for the regional pre-draft physical. I don’t know why, but I failed the physical, so I figured I didn’t need to continue the graduate school program at Hunter, a very un-smart move career wise but I wasn’t thinking that way then.
By spring of 1967 I had become, through my own misadventures, disenchanted with the Big Apple. I decided that the epicenter of the cultural revolution was not there but in San Francisco, where most of the Austin people I knew, artists, musicians and various related hipsters had gone when I went east. So I joined the exodus to the left coast.
I set up a studio at a flat with some artist friends and for a while was productive. I had pieces in several institutional shows, including at the famous Monterey Pop Festival. The cultural revolution, however, did not proceed as I had imagined it would, nor did my life and work, so the next chapter of “Life in art” begins about ten years later.
Living on our five acre “rancho” outside Sonoma, CA with my wife Roberta and our first two sons, I was taking a lot of photos of our family activities, including the animals we were raising. The photos became source material for genre scenes I started to develop, mostly small drawings. One of the early projects was a seven foot square oil painting, a family portrait with our Angus steer. The picture wasn’t as successful as I would have hoped but the idea of artistic celebration of our lifestyle gave me a subject matter that to me was worth the effort to pursue.
So, I got art back into my life as an integral part.
My woodworking business and busy family life limited the time I could spend on my new “hobby”. I wanted to develop images, finished composition, but the way I knew how to paint realistically in oils and acrylics proved too slow. I found myself losing enthusiasm for the compositions before I could complete the execution. There was also the complication of my being apparently color blind, red- green. I began doing more highly rendered drawings, based on elements from my photographs, using conte crayon on gessoed panels. This method worked well for me, I could complete a piece in a few weeks, even just working on it an hour or two when I could, often at night after family was in bed. I became more ambitious and began to do more complicated compositions, large scaled for drawings, about 4x6 feet. The Masonite panels, with many coats of polished gesso allowed me to do all the erasure and revisions necessary for me to get the verisimilitude effects I wanted. I’m not really a gifted draftsman who can do fast, accurate images. I developed methods to work back and forth, laying in dark areas like “underpainting” then reworking areas with erasures and even sand paper, blending with stumps and fingers. The large pieces took hundreds of hours so I completed one or two pieces a year. Some otherwise busy years I didn’t complete any pieces. The ones I did get done were pretty impressive though, and after winning awards at regional juried competitive exhibitions I did a one person show and sold several pieces. I’ve sold a few pieces to private parties myself, but I still have most of the “family” pictures and regret not having back the ones I did sell.
Wanting to go more “public” I needed a different, less personal subject matter and found it in another thing I have always loved, listening to, and dancing to live music; mostly blues and country. These are the forms to which Texas has contributed many notable artists and styles and I grew up with it. I started to take a camera to music shows, accumulating images of musicians, dancers and audience members enjoying themselves and each other. The big pieces I’m doing try to capture the ambiance of these up-close and personal communications that often happen over an evening or afternoon of live performance by musicians and audience.
The process is still slow and it will take more years to complete ten or twelve large scale pieces, but eventually I will try to find a serious dealer to mount a show. Meanwhile, I am having the most successful pictures; including the older “family” ones scanned for high resolution reproduction, giclee prints. Now I have some “product” I can sell and I can keep the originals if I want to.
I haven’t had much of a professional art career but I have tried to do work of professional quality. I wonder, if I ever make any money at it, would I be able to write off all the cover charges and bar bills! Even if I can’t do that, the hours doing “research” are hours I feel very fortunate to be part of. Roberta and I treasure the new friendships with fellow music lovers and hard working, talented musicians. I have great respect for the music and the people who keep it alive, usually for little financial comfort, and what I do now with the pictures gives me a kind of connection to those traditions. I consider myself blessed to have found a way to combine making art with personally fulfilling real-life experiences.