I’m fond of this pastel, “Volcano and Mirror”, because it was the first large still life in which I brought together a wide variety of motifs with something like originality. My previous attempts in the genre had helped me approach the scale, or the complexity; this one joined those tendencies in such a way that I knew I had found something.
It was March of 1996, spring break, and I had time away from teaching to paint. I was frustrated in my desire to get to the easel by the logistics of setting up a grand still life, something as big as the baroque works I admired. It took so long to organize the setup that it seemed I would never start the painting. I roamed around Danville, collecting things to pile up in my studio–cabbages and melons from the grocery, tools from my garage, doughnuts from Burke’s Bakery, along with stops at the hardware store, the nursery, and our garden. And of course my studio was already filled with potential motifs, like the lamp and mirror. At the time it seemed like a bizarre quest, akin to hoarding, that would likely produce nothing, except evidence that I was not really a grown-up, or even normal. I nearly stopped the process because I felt so foolish. After a couple of days, so many items had accumulated in my studio, “just in case” I might want to draw them, that most had to be excluded from the final setup. There are odd moments in the creative process like this that I have learned to appreciate, partly because I have learned that others will also appreciate the effort. John Streetman, Director of the Evansville Museum, turned out to be one of those. When this pastel was shown at Linda Schwartz Gallery later that year, John purchased it for the museum, which has one of the best collections of contemporary still life in the country. Eight years later, when “Volcano and Mirror” was part of a solo retrospective exhibition at the museum, John wrote in the catalog essay: “Nowhere before had I seen a still life that includes such surprising and incongruent ingredients, but, nonetheless, retains an aura of the traditional.” That’s what I was trying to do, and he understood it. I could not have wished for more.
Before becoming a still life artist, I had been painting landscapes, working mostly in pastel chalk on paper. Some were fairly large, and many depicted transient light and weather conditions. They were studio works, not made on-site, but done from photographs. I had begun my landscape career working outdoors from nature, but hadn’t done that for years. I wanted to work once again from life, but on-site landscape painting was not an attractive option– it presents more practical challenges than studio work, especially if one wants to make large paintings. So I made some still life setups near the window. Working in natural light appealed to me. That was the only light available to the old masters. I imitated them to get away from technological aids, like photography and artificial lighting, that they did not have or need.
Old master still life paintings grew from the vanitas images of the 1500s, and so were concerned with moralizing religious themes of life and death–reminders of the brevity and vanity of life. Even for an unbeliever, the gravitas of those themes makes it clear that still life can be more than a picture of nice stuff on a table. Any time we put two objects together on a table, some meaning arises–a potential action or story. Trained to think like a modernist, I was at first wary of the allegories in the old still life paintings, since it seemed such a rigid and simplistic way of creating meaning. But, as I gained greater familiarity with northern baroque painting, it became clear that in the hands of the best artists allegorical symbolism becomes flexible and lively. Complexity was the key—at least, as I grasped it then. Visual, sensual, and intellectual complexity could open the way to a more intense and durable experience for the viewer. It also allowed the creation of the image to be dynamic, helping me to find some originality, and to avoid cliché—always a danger in this long-practiced genre.
Amongst the many kinds of still life paintings made in the 17th century, those of cookies and sweets particularly attracted me. (See the beautiful little Clara Peeters painting, below). That’s why the bakery was one of my stops that day. Doughnuts, éclairs, cream horns; coffee. After satisfying my aesthetic sweet tooth, I wanted the image to have some grandeur (not something often associated with baked goods). For that, it needed deeper space. The mirror added that, and the addition of a landscape with a big sky increased it. The landscape is fictional. I had made many; it was not necessary to copy a real one. There was a real easel, but it had an empty drawing board on it. The mirror wasn’t broken. I invented that detail to make the space more readable–it allows the viewer to see the wall and floor on the right edge. Of course, a broken mirror has always seemed meaningful, too. Without me intending any particular meaning, it provokes thoughtful responses in anyone who notices it, or at least the childlike delight of discovery. From doughnuts and mirrors, I learned: obtain delight, and when you cannot get it readily, make it up. Some artists are devoted to truth, but I love invention just as much.
I was directly inspired by baroque painting, but didn’t want my work to be simply an imitation, with a false feeling of antiquity. In 17th century still life paintings, artists usually depicted things of great value. But they lived in a world in which a bouquet of flowers was expensive and exotic—just one example of the ways in which we can misread their work, since our bouquets might cost only a few dollars at the grocery store. There are no disposable or worthless items in old still lives, but there are many in ours. The cardboard box is one.
The standing floodlight was part of my studio equipment. It was, in a strictly practical sense, unnecessary, since I was working from daylight. But the creative process has little to do with strictness or practicality. Like the mirror and the window seen in it, the lamp evokes illumination and vision. Since making this painting, I have often included dark or broken lamps. The lamp is also a tool used in my work; other tools, not necessarily connected to making art, are found throughout: the shovel, sledgehammer, tape. Their functions—digging, breaking, joining—are so evocative that I used them many more times in later works.
My studio was in an old school; the ancient green paint was cracking off the wall. I exaggerated that effect, to create an all-over pattern and increase the visual complexity. In the same spirit, I used two tables, and the floor, as stages for the objects, making the image as much an interior view as a still life, and stretching and blending the usual conventions of the two genres.
The little poster on the wall is of a painting by the great 19th century American painter, Frederic Church: Cotopaxi (photo below). It shows the famous Ecuadoran volcano erupting: a marvel of romantic painting, conveying our experience of The Sublime–the power of nature. My landscape skies were partly inspired by Church’s paintings, so inclusion of this image was an act of homage, and this was just the first of many times that I would borrow his painterly strength to prop up my own weak things. There is nothing quite like a volcano to add some action to the quiet art of still life, concerned, as it usually is, with dull things like cabbages on a table.
My website has just been expanded and re-designed. It now includes a gallery of landscape paintings, all works from the early nineties. Also, the “About the Artist” page has been updated. Click the image below to go to the new site.
An extended study from life.