"Aqueous Dream"

Several months ago, I was asked to create a large installation piece of art for a design showroom in Oklahoma City (30A Home). The place is awesome and amazing and they are displaying one other installation piece (multiple panel art) and several single abstract paintings of mine already.

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This piece was an unexpected challenge. Ha! I have found that the term “unexpected” is usually applied to all my abstract paintings because they seem to have a mind of their own. I tell visitors to my art studio that painting an abstract painting is a bit like raising a teenager: they have their own mind and don’t like to be forced to conform to YOUR will. They have their own plan. It sounds almost metaphysical (sorry) but my job as a painter is to figure out what each abstract paintings “wants” to become. Landscape paintings are totally different. They’re like the super agreeable and responsible first born kid. An abstract piece is, uh….not like that. This particular abstract installation was a particularly challenging painting, in that I painted it twice. I originally had my own idea regarding what I wanted it to look like. So I spent several weeks applying paint and not liking it. So I worked on it more and arm wrestled it into compliance…and..then…

It won. It did not want to be what I wanted it to be. So I killed it. (It’s okay. It’s just a painting. I’m anthropomorphizing it.) So in a fit of rage (not really, but it makes a great story), I covered over every single panel with fresh aluminum leaf and…begun again.

This time, I just picked a color palette and let it have it’s say. And oh my gosh, even after the very first then application of paint, I was so glad I started over. I loved it. There’s got to be a life lesson here. I should write a parenting book I think. Anyway, after several more weeks of simply “listening” to what this piece wanted and complying; gently coercing it to my will here and there JUST A BIT, it turned into something I am so proud of. Wooo Hooo!

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A New Opportunity -- A New Idea

"Azure Spirals"

"Azure Spirals"

"Azure Spirals" close up

"Azure Spirals" close up

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine, Tony Morton, connected me to 30a Home, an incredibly cool company in Oklahoma City that is both an interior design warehouse (furniture and furnishings) as well as top notch interior design resource, working with builders, designers, architects, and one on one clients, providing ideas and resources for both residential and commercial projects.

Their headquarters / showroom is in Oklahoma City and it is beautiful. My assignment was to come up with several new abstract and installation pieces that would fit into this contemporary space, because 30a Home agreed to represent me. So...where to start?

In the middle of the night a couple weeks ago, the idea came to me (I don't know why this always seems to happen at 2:30 AM but that's pretty common for me). So I came up with a brand new way of creating an abstract oil painting. I am still (and always) painting on top of aluminum leaf (which reflects light back through the oil paint, creating vibrant color), but I figured out a way to leave some of that leaf raw (no paint at all), creating a painting that almost reminds me of batik -- with glimmering silver lines between fields of color. When the paint is all applied, then I cover the whole piece with solar-resistant resin.

I'm including photo examples of the first two pieces I did, "Azure Spirals" and "Aqua Matrix", but I have two more pieces nearly done, as well as a large triptych which is well underway. So...more photos will follow. The abstracts will be delivered to 30a Home in July, and a large installation piece scheduled for an October delivery.

I'm excited. People visiting my studio often ask me "When did you invent this type of artwork?" and I always laugh. I'M STILL INVENTING IT. That's what makes this job so much fun. Always dreaming, scheming and playing. Sometimes the results are awesome. And then...sometimes those ideas do not work at all. But photos of those bungles don't end up on this blog. :)

"Aqua Matrix"

"Aqua Matrix"

"How do you decide what to paint?"

Johnsen Commission concept photo (for future 30" x 60" painting)

Johnsen Commission concept photo (for future 30" x 60" painting)


One of the questions I'm often asked is how I decide what to paint. That question is most easily answered if said answer is dictated by the desires of a client for a painting that is commissioned. Obviously, for a painting commission, the client tells me what they want. That makes it easy (and usually a lot of fun because the subject could be almost ANYTHING).

When I'm just painting something to fill my walls here at my art studio in Asheville, then the answer is a lot more subjective. I usually am trying to keep an ear open at all times to what seems to be resonating with people as they enter my studio/gallery. That helps dictate what I will be working on next. See, my work station (where I do 85% of my work) is located just inside the door to my studio, so I'm right there, meeting and greeting people (and hopefully) painting. I hear people's comments (sometimes they crack me up!) so I know what is interesting to people. That helps me so much when I need to sit down and figure out what to paint to replace something that's sold.


One thing I've learned is to think one season ahead. Right now it's autumn. But right now, I've got an entire wall full of winter themed paintings and I've got more in the pipeline. The winter scenes are hot now through the holidays. As soon as "REAL" winter settles in and we're under snow pack and fighting freezing rain and sleet, then the appeal of snow scenes wears off. But that won't happen until January 1. As soon as it hits January, I'm painting spring scenes and by May, it's full-on summer scenes. I think this is because the human heart loves to anticipate the next season, but when we're "in the MIDST" of that season, we get bored and are longing for the next season. This is all new to me -- I grew up in southern California and we really didn't have much in the way of seasons at all, but the rhythm four seasons in Western North Carolina brings to life is just wonderful I think. I'm so glad to be living now in a place with four real seasons, because I love to paint all four (the Blue Ridge Mountains are spectacular all year round).

When I'm painting an abstract, then usually I just take a look at the "in" colors that are hot for decorating and I use those colors. Usually.

In the end though, I paint what makes me happy. There. True confessions. That's how I decide what to paint. Enough writing now...back to work.


Autumnal Shift

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Abstract oil paintings are always mysterious to me. I have a vague idea of the color palette I want to use, but honestly, I have no idea what I'm doing. That's what I enjoy about painting an abstract piece. The piece itself really kind of evolves by itself and I sometimes just feel like I'm only involved in the gentlest of ways. I tell people painting an abstract painting is like raising a teenager -- you might as well not even bother trying to make it this or that because in the end, it kind of makes up its own mind. It's good for us control freaks to paint abstract art I think. 

This painting entitled "Autumnal Shift" (thank you to Kris Archbold on my Facebook feed for the title!). It has a lot of texture -- vertical and horizontal scratches and raised areas, and then finished with just a bit of judiciously applied gold leaf. 

When I posted the photo of this piece on my Facebook page, I asked people what they saw, and what it should be named. It was an interesting and very well received little exercise. People saw a city scene on a river, tall ships and hilltops on fire. That's what I like about abstract art. It's almost like staring at the clouds -- abstract invites the participation of the viewer. "What is it?" you ask. Ahhh -- now I've got you. You must get involved and figure it out. What is it? What do you see?

“Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes....Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.” -- Arshile Gorky

the breakers

"the breakers" (18" x 24")

"the breakers" (18" x 24")

This was was...uh...interesting. I hear people come in my studio and say silly things to each other like "well remember, there are NO MISTAKES in art". Rubbish. I've made them all. I originally started this one several weeks ago and I liked the idea: very subtle gray, dark, muted colors. Anyway, it should have been hanging on my wall this last month except I was so disgusted with the original version of it that I took my paint-thinner soaked rag to it and wiped off as much paint as I could, then completely re-covered it with aluminum leaf and started over. This time, I switched gears and went with aquatic colors. As usually, I had no idea what was going to happen in this abstract as it progressed, but the very last day of paint application, it took the form of an abstracted seascape: waves crashing. I was very happy. 

So the next time you hear someone say something ridiculous like "there are no mistakes in art", just butt in please and tell them "uh...you mean there are no mistakes that can't be corrected". Happily, most "mistakes" can indeed be remedied with some grit and determination. 

So enjoy "the breakers".

The Three Voices
by Robert W. Service

The waves have a story to tell me, 
As I lie on the lonely beach; 
Chanting aloft in the pine-tops, 
The wind has a lesson to teach; 
But the stars sing an anthem of glory
I cannot put into speech. 

The waves tell of ocean spaces, 
Of hearts that are wild and brave, 
Of populous city places, 
Of desolate shores they lave, 
Of men who sally in quest of gold
To sink in an ocean grave. 

The wind is a mighty roamer; 
He bids me keep me free, 
Clean from the taint of the gold-lust, 
Hardy and pure as he; 
Cling with my love to nature, 
As a child to the mother-knee. 

But the stars throng out in their glory, 
And they sing of the God in man; 
They sing of the Mighty Master, 
Of the loom his fingers span, 
Where a star or a soul is a part of the whole, 
And weft in the wondrous plan. 

Here by the camp-fire's flicker, 
Deep in my blanket curled, 
I long for the peace of the pine-gloom, 
When the scroll of the Lord is unfurled, 
And the wind and the wave are silent, 
And world is singing to world.


"Glacial Fractures in situ"

"Glacial Fractures" (45" x 70")

"Glacial Fractures" (45" x 70")

Every now and then, I receive a very welcomed email from a client that a includes a photo of one of my paintings hanging in it's new home. The piece shown here, entitled "Glacial Fractures", was shipped to Chicago and is now part of someone's home. Honestly, this is still so weird and wonderful to me -- the idea that I can express myself very personally on a canvas, and then that part of me -- this "thing" I made is now detached from me completely and becomes part of the life and home of another. It's pretty cool really. It's kind of like conceiving and giving birth to a baby daughter, watching her grow up and then leave you to get married (moving to Chicago in this case). Sorry for the lame analogy, but my daughter Ceilidh IS getting married this Friday so I have that whole theme on the front burner of my brain right now. So exciting. 

Back to Business...

Next week, I'm back in my art studio in Asheville and though I've absolutely enjoyed the break, I'm really anxious to get back to the paintings I started a couple weeks ago, and I'm really enthused to get going on some brand new ideas I have now (this always happens when I take time to rest). 

And (drum roll)...I will actually be finishing up my "Big Mama" 6' x 8' painting this next week. More on that to come. This of course means that this piece, "Cullesaja Falls" will have taken a full year to complete. Whew!

Glacial Fractures

"Glacial Fractures"  (45" x 70")

"Glacial Fractures"  (45" x 70")

About a month ago ago, I was asked to work on a commission. They requested an abstract painting based on the general idea of some other abstracts I've done in the past but they (very helpfully) requested I use the colors in Degas' "The Green Dancer" (shown below).

The reason I loved this assignment was, well, there were two reasons...First, I didn't have to search for colors that would work and second, it was so much fun color matching one of Degas' most famous pieces. 

So my River Arts District art studio has been full of this really large painting now for about a month. It is scheduled to get its first layer of resin in the next couple of days (as soon as I get the gold leaf on the edges), and then it ships to Chicago. Honestly, I am going to miss looking at this one. 

I named this piece "Glacial Fractures" because it when I stand back and ask what it wanted to be called, the night time image of towering glaciers in Antarctica came to mind. Of course, the glaciers are lit from within (probably due to the aliens trapped in the ice). Ha ha. Don't you go rolling your eyes at me. I'm an X-Files geek. I can't help myself. 

Of Ruination and Rescue

I'm going to be rather vulnerable here. There's a big part of me that would like to create the impression that as an artist, I always know what I'm doing, but that wouldn't really be true. Most of the time, I do feel very confident with what I paint but then there are times that make me realize I have so much yet to learn. This week, I almost ruined a 4' x 5' painting. 

The oil painting in question is a very large abstract, and as I've explained in past blogs, I am never in complete control of an abstract painting. They really do have a mind of their own. Well, it turns out this painting had self-destructive tendencies I had to deal with. I had thought I was about half done with paint application and I kind of liked where it was going and was having fun working on it. Then two days ago, I was applying paint, a little here, a lot over there, more paint here, scrape off some there, and eventually I stood back and realized I'd just completely ruined the piece. So I was going to let it all dry and then re-cover it all with aluminum leaf and start all over again. 

I felt like God just before the flood, regretting even making this monstrosity. I was ready for the 40 days and 40 nights of deluge and looking forward (though rather defeated feeling) to starting over. 

That's when Joy stepped to the back of my studio and took a look at it. "Oh, that's really bad," she whispered. (She's honest like that.) And I said I was going to have to start all over. Then she suggested just wiping off all the paint I had just applied that day and then taking a look at it the next day with fresh eyes. So I did, and something really weird happened. When I wiped off the fresh paint, a little paint film still stuck to the rest of the piece; a fog of blues, greens and whites. Hmmmm. Interesting. That slight film I was unable to remove completely softened the whole thing and brought everything together. 

The next morning I came in and was not repulsed (always a good sign) and was able to completely save the piece. Whew. 

There is a lesson here I think.

Understanding Abstract Art



Are you one of the people who "get" abstract art or do you need a little help? Well, if you need help, don't feel bad. You are not alone. I have felt your pain. Landscape painting is easy enough to understand. A large rendition of a mountain landscape can be an awesome statement piece. But not all wall art is so easy to understand is it?

So if you need help with abstracts, I'd like to share a brilliant article from the Huffington Post written by Priscilla Frank entitled:

"Your Definitive Guide To Reading A Piece Of Abstract Art"

"Abstract art can be a doozy. We’d be lying if we said we’ve never approached a daunting canvas buzzing with indiscernible colors, shapes and stripes and, on the verge of a panic attack, grasped for the nearest museum guide. It’s hard to shake the nagging desire to solve the puzzle at hand, parse through the images and figure out what it all means. But, in our hearts, we know abstract art is no Sunday morning crossword puzzle, and should not be treated as such. On that note, we’re diving in.

"Abstract art is a beast all its own, and as such requires our utmost attention, patience and imagination. “Abstraction is staggeringly radical, circumvents language, and sidesteps naming or mere description,” Jerry Saltz writes in his wonderful manifesto on abstraction. “It disenchants, re-enchants, detoxifies, destabilizes, resists closure, slows perception, and increases our grasp of the world.” And so it may, but how do we actually engage with it?

"We’re taking it slow and attempting to navigate the perilous waters of abstract art one step at a time. Consider this a beginner’s guide to a lifelong relationship between, you, art, and your spirit guide Jerry Saltz. Here are nine things to consider next time you approach a seemingly impenetrable work of abstract art.

There’s no code to crack.

"As human beings, we take pleasure in solving problems. While this is useful in many aspects of life, the realm of abstract art is not one of them. Take a deep breath and let go of the desire to align every brushstroke to a symbolic meaning, every color to an aspect of the artist’s biography. While “getting” an artwork brings a momentary feeling of victory, bathing in its mystery brings enjoyment for far longer.

Don’t look at the clock.

"How long should you take to digest and fully experience a work of art? While the average time spent in front a museum artwork is around 30 seconds, truly taking in an artwork can take years. (Remember when Saltz said abstraction slowed perception?) Kitty Scott, director of visual arts at the Banff Centre, likened learning an artist’s visual language to learning a new written one. “Over the years, you may see 20 works, and then you start to understand their language and what their subject is,“ she explained.

Don’t talk about your five-year-old.

"You know, and have likely felt the urge to recite, the old “my five-year-old could do that.” And yes, sometimes it’s hard to reckon how a white canvas can sit in the MoMA and not in the “before” pile of an artist’s studio. One artist whose work is often looped into this category of the “childhish” is Cy Twombly, whose loopy scribbles often resemble youthful nonsense. But this passage by Roland Barthes may change your mind:

“It is not childish in form, for the child applies himself, presses down, rounds off, sticks out his tongue in his efforts, the child works hard to join the code of grown-ups. [Twombly] draw away from it, loosens, lags behind, his hand seems to levitate — as if the word had been written with his fingertips, not out of disgust or boredom but out of a kind of caprice open to the memory of a defunct culture which has left no more than the trace of a few words.”

"Now, could your child do that?

Don’t think of a picture, think of a thing.

"When we look at a picture, there are certain questions that immediately come to mind. The simplest being, What is it a picture of? When you shift gears a little, you’re free to open your mind up to the many questions that could make their way into your brain. What is this thing? What is it made of? What’s its speed? Its texture? Is it peaceful or cacophonous, heavy or light, open or closed? These questions, unlike the first, have no definitive answers, but may help you locate a starting point from which to navigate the artistic world before you.

"One easy place to start is color. As Wassily Kandinsky, one of the first abstract artists, wrote: “Color is a power which directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” Perhaps start there. What colors do you see, hear and feel?

Ditch the questions completely.

"If asking questions feels too much like a cross examination, focus on affirmative statements instead. It may sound cliche to think about how the painting makes you feel, but the sentiment isn’t actually too far off. After all, abstract artist Agnes Martin did say “Abstract art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings.

"In his book “Pictures and Tears“ James Elkins perused a guest book at the permanent display at the Rothko Chapel. From reading the visitor comments, one would expect the viewers had just witnessed a supernatural event or a religious epiphany rather than sat before an artwork. Comments ranged from “This makes me fall down,” to “The silence pierces deeply, to the heart. Once more I am moved — to tears.” Sometimes asking questions only proves to be a distraction.

That being said, don’t stress about getting emotional.

"We know few things are more frustrating than watching a fellow museum-goer weep uncontrollably in front of an artwork you think is just okay. You don’t have to love or even like every piece. Don’t be afraid to move on and find one that speaks to you.

Read the wall text.

"Here’s the part where you get a clue, if you’re so inclined. While the title will not, and should not, explain the piece, it could illuminate an aspect of it or an angle from which to view it you hadn’t noticed before. Let the work’s verbal and visual components bounce off each other, and harmonize. You may not get closer to understanding, you may even wind up more confused. It’s all part of the process. Also, you could wind up with an untitled piece.

"Along with the work’s title, knowing the era and geographical origin of the artwork will also help acclimate you to the atmosphere from which the piece emerged. To again quote Kandinsky, art and literature reflect “the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what at first was only a little point of light noticed by few and for the great majority non-existent. Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but on the other hand they turn away from the soulless life of the present towards those substances and ideas which give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul.”

"What would a work like this say about the world from which it came? The essence may be so radical it couldn’t yet be put into words.

Remember, some artists don’t even know, or care, what their work means.

"This is the part where you take a deep breath and fully accept the fact that you’re working outside the realm of answers and explanations. Even the artists themselves sometimes don’t dwell over why they’re making what they’re making. In a talk at MoMA, famed abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly was asked about his iconic “Chatham Series,” which dates back to 1972. “It’s hard to remember. I’m quite impressed with them now!“ He said, gesturing to the works and sighing. “But it’s always a mystery looking back.” If Ellsworth himself is content to marvel at the mystery of his own works, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be also.

Think about the fact that all art is really abstract art. And let your mind be blown.

"There’s an old art lovers’ tale about an American soldier telling Picasso his artworks aren’t close enough to life. He pulls out a photo of his fiancee and says: “This is what a picture should look like.“ Picasso, in typical Picasso fashion, responds: “Your girlfriend is rather small, isn’t she?” Point being, all art is abstracted from reality, or else museums would take up a lot more space.

"Whether this assuages your anxiety or throws you into a downward spiral of panic is up to you. To again quote Jerry’s infinite wisdom: “Abstraction is as old as we are. It has existed for millennia outside the West. It is present on cave walls, in Egyptian and Cypriot Greek art, Chinese scholar rocks, all Islamic and Jewish art — both of which forbid representation. Abstraction is only new in the West.” Abstraction was around way before your pretentious art school friend showed you his dot experiments and expected you to be impressed.

"This is where our brief foray into the wonders of abstraction comes to a close. While this short list may not help you understand your next trip to your local modern art museum, it may alleviate some of the pressure to understand it in the first place.



"Chi" (18" x 36")

"Chi" (18" x 36")

Beginning an abstract art piece, is very different than beginning a landscape art piece in that I never, ever know what it will look like when complete. But I am learning that an abstract art painting will "tell me" when it's done. It's really great therapy -- divorcing ones mind from forced structure and let the structure of the painting form alongside the randomness of it. The place a landscape painting comes from is concrete most of the time: a picture either in my head or from a photo, usually of a western North Carolina or Asheville scene. But an abstract art piece comes from inside.

There is a short essay by Rainer Rilke I'd like to share. It's beautiful, and though written originally with the writing of prose or poetry, it applies so well to creating any art, and definitely applies to creating abstract art...

“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose...

...Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty - describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. - And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.”