I call myself a painter; I paint, so I’m a painter. A teacher of mine, William Baggett, said, “Too many students call themselves artists, and they’re not artists; they’re students.” That stuck with me. I’m still learning, so I’m a student too, and I never want to get past that.
At USM, Jim Meade became my mentor. Meade steered us towards the formality of composition. He would talk about the Golden Mean, the Golden Rectangle, the Fibonacci sequence, and how all those tied into aesthetics. We would draw forms and divide them up, explore the geometry of formats just to get us geared into recognizing that this is the way things can be arranged so that your brain knows it’s there, even though it’s not drawn out. It was so boring! I often thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? I came here to become a good artist and to find something that nobody’s ever done before and become famous; that’s why I’m here!’ But it ended up becoming a completely different experience.
The first class I took I failed. The teacher said that I could render things okay, but that I didn’t know anything about drawing. At that point I realized that I either had to dump all my preconceived ideas about art and begin learning, or I’d have to find something else to do, and there was nothing else I wanted to do. I’d just gotten out of the military, I was 24, one of the “old guys” in the class. And these young kids were, well, drawing circles around me. I had to humble myself, tell myself that I had to learn, and if I want to discard it, I’d discard it. So we did gesture drawing, weight drawing, blind contour, taking the works of Renaissance painters, placing tracing paper on top and finding how they lined up their compositions, learning from masters of their art. When we were given more freedom to start making decisions, form was so ingrained it was natural. We didn’t even have to think about it. Then Jim came up with a great phrase, which I attribute to him because I’ve never heard anyone else use it except myself, but he called it cultivated intuition. You cultivate a visual idea so much that it becomes intuitive.
Meade would also tell me not to worry about coming out with my own style. He told me that style is either going to happen or it’s not; it’s going to be you coming out. He would tell me, “Miles Davis didn’t get a trumpet and start writing his own music and improvising; he learned the notes, he played the scales, he did the boring stuff over and over and over. Once he got good at the boring stuff, then he played other people’s music. Then, when he became proficient in other people’s music, people he admired, he took all those things and was able to push it further out than it had ever been pushed before.” That made complete sense to me. I wasn’t in college to make paintings, I wasn’t studying art to make paintings; I was studying to learn how to paint, the paintings would come later.
Visual strength is seeing something that connects deeper than ‘Wow, that’s a pretty horse in that painting.’ Or ‘That painting looks just like a photograph.’ It might be a great painting that looks just like a photograph, or it might be a shitty painting that looks like a photograph; but the fact that it looks like a photograph is irrelevant. It could simply consist of a few squiggly lines in the right place and it would be charged. Dali’s work is cool and interesting and psychological, but it relies so heavily on the subject matter being shocking that it’s a matter of diminishing returns: the more often you see his work it doesn’t grab you like it did the first time. I’m not sure if what he was doing defeated his purpose visually. Van Gogh’s Chair is powerful on both levels. I think good art engages with precariousness in balance between the linear composition and the color; you want unity, but you don’t want so much unity that it’s boring. You have to have some contrast. I guess I’ve allowed for this chaos and order by allowing all the chaos and accidental stuff to happen at first, so I’ve got to put it together. I don’t want to take away that spontaneity, but I want it to eventually look like a flat piece of art with everything fitting within the frame.
Every art professor in the world would probably cringe to hear someone say this, but art is something that you hang on your wall and you look at every day. If people didn’t have art hanging on their walls, then artists wouldn’t exist. I have a painting by Ellen Langford that see every day, and every time I look at it, it re-engages me. And I notice something different about it; either I’ll look at it formally, at the composition, the way she treats the negative space between the trees and around the house, or I’ll look at the expressions on the faces and see the animals in there. There’s a lot going on, but at the same time it’s simple; it’s got this juxtaposition, this push/pull, so what jumps out at me most often is what’s farthest away. Arnheim talks about this in his book, about flattening the space by making what’s farthest away in the painting come forward.
Even in my non-representational pieces, I’m very much concerned with the negative space and the picture plane. If everything doesn’t look like it belongs there, if everything doesn’t relate to that flat surface, then it doesn’t work. I try to put a sort of weird overlapping depth in there, but it also has to be flattened. So you’re tricking the minds of your viewers with this push/pull going on; it’s a visual element I use to re-engage the viewer. When people say ‘This artist is so talented,’ it’s almost an insult to the hard work it takes to be decent at something. That’s also what’s exciting about it. My work has continued to change and evolve, and I still learn things. They can refer to me as an artist when I’m good.
I started painting when I was 2 years old; my kindergarten teacher taught me to read and to paint the story. She was really interested in art, and when I started school, she taught me private lessons. She’s probably the reason I started painting. My dad fought in WWII, so his values reflected that: had to work, had to study. I can’t do just a little bit of something; I have to do a lot of it. I can’t do it for an hour and a half a day. If I don’t have a good immersion in it, it just isn’t going to happen. I went to Mississippi College, and we didn’t have aesthetics, but we had a creative writing class. It was so fun to be in that class: theme variations, tension, restraint; the big things. That was really my only aesthetics class, that and going to the truck stop to drink coffee after we’d dropped our dates off. You had to get your dates in by 10 p.m. back then.
I’m a dinosaur; I paint outside. I usually start to paint things based on what I call The Great Out Here, the reflected and atmospheric lights that are in the world. The more I paint, the more I look at something, the more it gets on my retina and creates an after-image when I look away from it. You know how a flash bulb goes off and you can still “see” this thing floating in your vision? Well, it’s that sort of thing. It’s why I work on location, because it happens when I’m working on location, and it doesn’t happen for me in the studio, at least not in the same way. I carry a mirror with me. When I don’t know what to do, I look in the mirror, and the mirror tells me what it looks like to other people. It gives me some objectivity on what I’m seeing. And that probably is the trickiest thing that I use. Painting is considered kind of trick, you know, techniques and all that. I used to be pretty technique-y, but that takes the left-hand side of the brain and puts it on the right-hand side. When you’re writing something, and you come back to it the next day, it’s the same effect; you see how other people see it. When you’re close to it, you can’t tell what to do, so I use a mirror progressively as the painting develops. Like penicillin, I use it when I need it.
It’s also tied in to the idea that the real experience is a lost thing. We’re almost a virtual society now, and in a virtual kind of world, it becomes important for me to make a case for the real experience, or at least to be out there saying that here it is. So that’s what I do, paint on location, and let the real experience of being in front of something affect me, to let that to be my influence. Invariably, though, when you’re working outside, all sorts of things are going to happen and you’re going to get into the zone, that hypnotic place, and you begin painting expressively. I try to let that happen; I don’t know how to make it happen, but when I paint, it seems to happen on its own. I’ve always loved how watercolor doesn’t do what you want it to do. It’s the only medium I can think of that moves while you’re painting; it drips and runs. It’s like dancing; It isn’t what you make it do, it’s taking advantage of what it’s doing in the first place. It’s like riding a horse. The horse knows something about the field; you don’t drive a horse, you listen to the horse.
I went to Paris, and here I was in one of the great centers of the art world, and I got really homesick. I figured out that the things I want to paint are all here. I didn’t think it would be that way, but all the things I want to do are here.
M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992) was of Julia Child’s generation and like Child spent a considerable amount of time in France during a period when that country reigned supreme as the culinary center of the western hemisphere. For those of a later generation, she’s perhaps remembered most as the author of the preface for The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954), which caused quite a stir because of Alice’s inclusion of a wonderful (albeit expensive not to mention illegal) recipe for “haschich fudge” that became quite popular among the beatniks and hippies, especially those who eschewed smoking. Long before that spate of notoriety, however, Fisher had long established herself as one of the finest culinary essayists in the English language.
The Art of Eating collects her five books – (Serve It Forth (1937), Consider the Oyster (1941), How to Cook a Wolf (1942), The Gastronomical Me (1943) and An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949) – into a single volume. In her Alphabet, under “G for Gluttony”, she writes, “I cannot believe there exists a single coherent human being who will not confess, at least to himself, that once or twice he has stuffed himself to the bursting point on anything from quail fianciére to flapjacks, for no other reason than the beastlike satisfaction of his belly.” (Admittedly, this is an altogether too familiar sensation.)
Fisher’s Art is a picnic, not just for food lovers, but for all who enjoy good, convivial writing. While some of her essays seem a bit labored from our perspective, immersed as we are in Twitter, Fisher established a literary bridge between the wordy, aphoristic Brillat-Savarin and the leaner, more objective prose of the New World. She’s not as dictatory as Brillat-Savarin, but I find her every bit as intimidating. Her writing is measured, lucid, and suffused with a wry wit that often carries the weight of the occasionally ponderous paragraph. If you love food and love reading, find The Art of Eating and stuff yourself to the bursting point. Then cleanse your palate with Proust. Cities of the Plain is fun.