Did I Choose Art or Did It Choose Me?

Big Little Drawing

First let me apologize for my complete lack of posting over the last few weeks. I became buried with unsolicited work (always a good thing) and there just weren’t enough hours in the day to slice out time for writing (or painting, for that matter). I’m not kidding about the project volume. I’m currently working on 2 mural painting for 2 separate children’s hospitals, 4 branding projects for 2 new clients, I’ve taken on a new private student, have begun my second term as a teaching artist for the Mariposa County Arts Council and School System, designed an elaborate tattoo for a local businessman and I’m putting the finishing touches on a new website for Sierra Art Trails. Whew! Anyway, enough with the apology and on with the post.

I recently came across a filing folder of my childhood artwork.  Unknown to me, my mother was saving much of what I created, as I was growing up and decided last year to pass the collection on to me. My mom and dad both turned 90 this year and my mom’s beginning to distribute these mementos among her five children. I never bothered to look through it, at the time, instead, just shoving it onto a shelf in the closet of my studio.

Looking for something else the other day, I noticed the folder and took a look inside. To my great surprise it contained a drawing pivotal in my life. A very early creation I had no idea my mother had procured and preserved. Right on top, quarter folded, was the drawing shown at the top of this post.

This was an early art assignment (maybe my first art assignment), given to a 5 year old me by my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Macnamara. The class was to draw something big and something small (as our teacher had written across the top of our blank sheets of manila paper, with a thick black crayon). I apparently decided to make animals my focus.

I’m sure I’d been to, what was then known as, the Griffith Park Zoo many times by then and experienced the elephants there, first hand: sizable beasts, when compared to a 5 year old looking up at them. So, when I thought of really big animals, elephants were an obvious choice.

I spent a lot of my 5 year old life playing outdoors with other kids in the neighborhood. In fact, I began kindergarten with my left arm in a cast to hold the broken bones still while they re-knit, an injury sustained through a bad fall, rough-housing with some of the older kids on the block. Anyway, I saw a lot of birds outside. So, under small I drew a bird. Seemed right to me!

When my teacher collected our drawings and reviewed them, she asked me if she could mat my drawing and put it up on the wall for the upcoming Open House. A little light went on in my head. Hmm, why me?

I got an answer to my question a few days later, when during the Open House, Mrs. Macnamara encouraged my parents and I over to the wall where my drawing was being displayed. She explained to my mom and dad why she selected my drawing to display. In addition to her liking the quality of this early effort (all smiles) I was the only student in the class to use comparative analysis in arriving at my solution. While everyone else in the class had drawn big and small version of the same object: a big sun and a small sun, a big house and a small house, etc., I chose to draw an item that was actually big in the real world with one that was truly small.

I felt myself swell with pride at the attention brought to this effort, early in my academic career and at that moment, then and there, decided what I wanted to do with the rest of my life!





Au Revoir, Dear Friend

Photo of Dennis Lewis
Dennis Lewis, at home at his easel.

Old friends are the most valuable friends. They know your true name. That is, they know who you really are, stripped away of any accomplishments or well developed facades. They befriended the lump of clay in its raw, unrefined state. A life barometer, their praise, criticism and most of all continued friendship, slices through the layers to the man or woman behind the curtain. They are a cornerstone in the foundation of your life.

I lost one of these dear, stabilizing friends this week. Dennis Lewis, master painter, teacher, lecturer and most beautiful of human beings, husband to designer, Sheryl Lewis and 3 wonderful, creative children, Christopher, Nathanial and Christina. He left us after a brave multi-year battle with cancer.

Rose of Sharon Image
“Rose of Sharon,” by Dennis Lewis. Featuring his beautiful wife, Sheryl.

Dennis and I met our first week at Chouinard Art Institute. I was sitting on the sidewalk, out in front of the school, during a break between classes. My back against the wall, staring at the ground, this was the first time I’d ever begun a school year without knowing anyone else attending. I heard, “Hey, man,” and looked up to find Dennis starring down at me. “This your first week here?” I responded that it was and he said he thought so, he’d seen me in his life drawing class. He explained it was his first week, too. We were both 18 years old, at the time, and this was the beginning of what became a 50 year long friendship. This was Dennis’ way, reaching out to anyone he encountered who seemed lonely, confused or needed help in some way. He had the biggest heart and kindest manner of anyone I’ve ever encountered. And he was so humble. He was one of the most talented individuals I knew in art school and that talent skyrocketed throughout his life. He’s responsible for the design of album covers for many of the movers and shakers in the recording industry, countless movie posters and several of his commissioned paintings hang on the walls of the Pentagon. Yet, he was constantly seeking out strangers of talent and asking them to show him how they did what they did, expanding his learning, only sharing his own work with them, if they asked. As a result of this, he could number many notables in art, as his friends.

Hair Image
“Hair,” by Dennis Lewis. A challenge to his son, can you grow an afro as big as mine, in the day?

I’ve been fortunate, in that Dennis and I have often lived in close proximity to each other. Many of the positions I’ve held have been packaged with the responsibility to recruit others, for assistance in realizing accomplishment of creative projects. Dennis never refused my requests for help, allowing us the joy of working together many times in our careers. He even packed up his family and moved from L.A. to the Sierra Nevada foothills to help me build a creative organization for a pioneering company, in the early days of computer game development, Sierra Online. I say joy, because Dennis is a hilarious guy. He tells a story like no one else. Anyone who ever attended one of his demos, can attest to this. They were not a demo you wanted to attend with a full bladder!

To some degree our lives traveled along similar paths. At 5 or 6 years of age, we both decided we’d be artists, after receiving praise from our mothers, for something we’d created. We both entered and graduated from the same art school in the same period and chose identical areas of study while students there. For most of our adult lives we earned our daily bread as commercial artists and recently, at the same time, without consulting each other, both decided to pursue fine art full time. Identically, we fell in love with the Sierras, during our time at Sierra Online and settled here.

Our being located near each other, in pursuit of fine art, has allowed us to paint and draw together on a regular bases, both in the studio and out in  the pastoral locals Yosemite and the surrounding mountains offer. A tremendous gift, recent years with my good friend and creative sounding board. With his passing, I’m out of balance. On some level, I was painting for Dennis. His absence has left a tremendous void in the lives of all that knew and loved him and to know Dennis, was to love him.

Au Revoir, Bud, please keep a place for me on whichever plain or in whichever dimension you settle!



Artist in Residence in Yosemite – Day 1

In progress Chilnualna Falls, oil on canvas 12″ x 9.”

I’ve been awarded artist in residence by Yosemite Renaissance, which comes with a 2 bedroom cabin at Wawona, in Yosemite National Park, for a week.

I’ve invited many artist friends, in the area, to come up and join me, so we can go out together and paint plein air. Some are staying with me overnight in the cabin for a day or two, others coming up for the day. 7 days of painting with friends in Yosemite.

I’ve decided to use the week to see if I can make selections and simplify enough to finish the paintings on location, in one sitting. True plein air. It’s tough for me, because I generally like to add a little more finish to my paintings. I haven’t been able to resist taking all the plein air paintings, I’ve produced so far, back to the studio for more polish, but it’s hard to justify all the extra work put into paintings so small. Better to find a personal shorthand I can apply to my plein air paintings.

Today was the first day of the residency and I was joined by Carolyn and Sandee, two artist with a lot of experience painting plein air. We chose to paint a location close to the cabin, Chilnualna Falls. With all the rain and snow we had this winter, combined with the current warmer temperatures, our waterways are breaking records. This normally trickling stream’s been converted into a torrent of quickly moving, twisting, splashing gallons of water.

All good, but I didn’t reach my goal today. This painting still needs more work, before it’s finished, even by plein air standards. I think, with the waterfall, I took on too much for the time allotted. Wish me better luck tomorrow.

Brothers & Sisters in Art

CalArts - Chouinard Logo

Last weekend I made the trip down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where I currently live, to Los Angeles, where I was born and raised, for the CalArts/Chouinard Art Institute alumni reunion. I don’t often make it to these get-togethers, but they were giving special awards to my good friend, artist, Dennis Lewis, and posthumously to my illustration lab professor, Harold Kramer, so it was a must attend.

Only 4 of my actual classmates were there, the group ranged from geriatrics to students currently attending CalArts. I was sitting next to an architect, a graduate from a class many years before my own. I unexpectedly ran into, Tony, the son of artist (a Chouinard graduate) whom I’d worked with for 12 years, when I was directing animation for Kurtz & Friends. Tony and my own son used to hang out together at all the Kurtz & Friends events that included family, which were most of them.

The reunion presentations were fine, my friend, Dennis’, acceptance speech being the highlight of the program. Dennis is a great natural storyteller and can’t help but crack the room up with his cast of a thousand in character portrayals of student interactions, from his many years of teaching and his rendition of how he met his beautiful wife. But there was a rich reward, above the joy of watching my close friend of 50 years receive the recognition he deserved and that was introductions to and conversations with the alumni, most of whom I’d never met before.

Art knowledge is timeless, so when you converse with an artist that’s 90 years old or one that’s 19 years old, you share common interests and speak a common language. Age or generational differences melt away as you discuss Richard Diebenkorn and the influence Matisse had on his work (a current exhibit at SFMOMA) or the Calder retrospective at LACMA last year or the student from this class or that who’s recently gained international recognition. In the company of artists you share like interests far beyond those bound to generation and become part of a living, breathing organism with a focused passion for art.

Pick up a paintbrush, chisel or other creative tool and you’re rubbing shoulders with Leonardo, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Hockney and all artists past and present. Welcome to the fraternity of artists, take full advantage of your membership!

New Ground

Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Swinging Bridge Image
“Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Swinging Bridge,” 30″ x 40,” oil on canvas, framed, $4,250.

I just finished an abstraction of the view of Yosemite Falls from the Sentinel Swinging Bridge. I work with abstractions as often as I do with representational pieces (actually more), but this one was more challenging.

My abstract forms are usually developed through multiple viewpoint perspective (MVP). For those unfamiliar with MVP, it’s an approach where the artist considers their subject matter from, not just a single point of view, but, instead, from all sides, creating images that represent multiple perspectives of the subject at the same time in a single image. The approach was pioneered by Picasso and Braque through their explorations with cubism.

Anyway, MVP depends on the viewer’s knowing what the subject matter looks like in its original state, before it’s abstracted, in order to be able to appreciate how it’s been abstracted. In a scene like this one, completely comprised of natural organic elements, representing elements from all sides can go unrecognized, so I had to depend on other systems of abstraction. I leaned heavily on geometric, organic and reductive abstraction here to arrive at my final solution. These methods of abstraction are generally called upon, to some degree, in all my abstractions, but this subject required me to rely on them exclusively.

Being forced to work without MVP took me out of my comfort zone, making me more insecure, a good thing for an artist. An indication that you’re exploring new personal territory and not relying solely on solutions that have been successful for you in the past. I highly recommend it.