What makes art "Art"?

“Red Triangle”  Francois Pelletier, 2003

“Red Triangle” Francois Pelletier, 2003

Imagine one afternoon not long ago, you were visiting a rather famous art museum. Some of the art, you felt like you understood and you were feeling pretty proud of yourself. And then…you came into the “modern art” wing and and saw there, at the end of a long hallway, the huge master work by French painter Francois Pelletier “The Red Triangle”. Imagine please that this was your first time seeing this piece (maybe it is?). If that was/is the case, what is your visceral reaction? It’s okay to be honest. We’re all friends here. Many people (we’ll call them “Group One”) express that they have felt and received the message Pelletier was trying to convey and others (Group Two) laughed at the people in Group One, so whatever your reaction, you’re probably right.

What makes art “Art”? Do you know? Is there an actual answer anymore? See, what makes art “Art” depends upon several sometimes conflicting assumptions. Is “Art” beautiful? Sometimes, but not always? Is it disturbing? Sometimes but not always? Is it serious, whimsical, deep or meaningless? I know people who would answer with a resounding “YES!” to each of these descriptions of what makes art “Art”. Eventually, you get to the point where everything and anything at all is art if you “think” it is.

But honestly, I think that is only possible because today in western culture, we’re not allowed to have any form of “measurement” when it comes to measuring the value of art. I don’t mean that we’re not given any form of measurement, I mean we’re not “allowed” any. But if that is correct, then art (and artists) really are in a completely unique category.

Imagine you were planning a trip to France and you went to TripAdvisor to see what were the “must see’s” in France. The Louvre had five stars, Eiffel Tower had five stars, the restroom in front of Nortre Dame - five stars, the bus from the Arc de Triomphe to the main train station — five stars. And then you notice that every point of interest, every restaurant, every hotel had five stars. Well of course they do, it’s Paris, right? But seriously, if there was no judgement being exercised by anyone rating on TripAdvisor at all, if everything they rated was given five stars, what sort of help would that be? And do you really think that the bus from the Arc de Triomphe to the main train station “DESERVES” five stars? But “who are you to judge?”

So if there are not standards at all (and our post-modern western civilization tells us there are not), then is there such a thing as real art? Beautiful music? Skillful poetry and prose? Masterfully executed films? If your answer is yes, then how can our post-modern assumptions be correct? And if the answer is no, then how can we live in a world like that? Can you?

I’d love your input on this one. No judging here. This topic is a pretty big one and I will not pretend to be the ultimate authority here. It’s just my blog, that’s all. :)

Thoughts on New Directions, New Possibilities

I'm an oil painter in the River Arts District in Asheville, North Carolina. I love our spot in the Blue Ridge mountains. It's really a fun, dynamic and sometimes crazy little city here in Western North Carolina. I've been painting in a studio in the arts district for almost eight years now and in my current studio for three years this month. It's been amazing. I get to paint and talk to people interested in artwork all day long, five days a week.

It is very much in my personality (maybe it's a basic human tendency??) to think "this will last forever". I love to "pigeon-hole" things so that life looks organized. And as much as I love change, there is something almost intoxicating about the idea of stasis, you know? Predictability can be comforting. The trick for a person with an artistic-adventurous spirit like me to find the line between predictability and unplanned adventure. The balance between predictability and adventure, comfort and fun -- that is the goal.

Sometimes though, so many things can change so very quickly. This season I am entering looks like one of those seasons of change, and from where I sit, it all (thankfully) looks like very good change. There are possibilities of new interesting painting commissions here in Asheville, new painting themes, expansion of my technique with a variety of finishes on my work, expansion of my market with international art galleries and the development of a new part-time art studio in the Dallas area (where three of our four kids live).

So over the next few months, I'm looking forward to sharing my adventures (if they work out) and maybe some disappointments (if my expectations do not work out) but it may be a pretty interesting next several months. In the mean time, I will keep painting, keep my studio doors wide open and totally enjoy the fall season (traditionally the busiest time of our year).



Even before I became a full-time oil painter in Asheville's River Arts District, I was developing a unique way to create a painting using dimension, both in the build-up of the composition and in the finish (which has mostly been using a thick, high-gloss, solar-resistant resin). In fact at this point, I think I'm probably known for that "shiny" resin finish. I like it a lot. It allows me to embed flecks of gold that are essentially "floating" above the surface of the actual painting.

That said, my largest commissions over the last couple of years have been with a satin varnish finish, which leaves all the texture visible (and touchable) and is not nearly as reflective as the high gloss resin. And I'm really liking the results of that finish as well.

Lately, I have more and more people asking about the satin finish and so I'm thinking I need to listen.

And so I'm asking for your brutally honest opinion:

Would you suggest I continue to produce paintings with a high gloss resin finish or would you honestly prefer a softer finish that leaves more of the texture showing and is much less reflective? You won't hurt my feelings either way and on the contrary, you'll really help me decide what direction I need to go now.  (SEE PHOTOS BELOW FOR EXAMPLES OF BOTH)





So, what do you think? One or the other, some of both? Mostly one, some of the other? I'm really open to listening. If you could leave your opinion below (so they're all consolidated in one place), that would really be appreciated! Thank you!

The Art of Dinner (at the Grove Park Inn)

Ashville's Historic Grove Park Inn

Ashville's Historic Grove Park Inn

Last night, several artists in Asheville's River Arts District were asked to take part in a very special dinner at Asheville's Grove Park Inn. We each submitted a piece of our art to the executive chef along with an explanation of our technique and the story behind the piece. Then the chef created a course of the dinner that was inspired by the art and the story. What an amazingly creative idea! And the ultra cool part of it is that this was all put on for the Dallas Cowboy's!

The painting I submitted was one of my favorites: "Stroll Through the Birch Trees". The inspiration for this piece is from one summer up in British Columbia (Canada) at Francois Lake when I was a teenager. We were staying on a family farm (an ancient log cabin) on the lake, and there were fields of wheat right on the lake. But there were also "upper fields" which you could only get to via a walk through the now overgrown forest path. One sunny morning after a rainstorm the night before, I explored this path and it was magical. Sun rays were glinting off the mist rising from the forest floor. I remember the smells of the woods, of damp, of water, of pines and birches...this is what became the inspiration behind this painting. 

Dinner was spectacular. I've never eaten food like this. There were more eating utensils around my plate than I'd ever seen (except on Downton Abbey maybe). The company, the friends, the art, the music -- what an honor to have been a part of it! 

So to help you get an idea of how this all went are some photos! Bon appetit!


Matt Tommey's basket/art sculpture was pared with smoked foie Gras macaroon, black garlic dirt, apple honeycomb and micro flowers.

Matt Tommey's basket/art sculpture was pared with smoked foie Gras macaroon, black garlic dirt, apple honeycomb and micro flowers.


My painting ("Stroll Through the Birch Trees") was pared with salsify, fennel, pea tendrils, local cheese and smoked onion ash. Note: there was fog coming from the bottom plate, wafting up around the pea tendrils. Amazing!!

My painting ("Stroll Through the Birch Trees") was pared with salsify, fennel, pea tendrils, local cheese and smoked onion ash. Note: there was fog coming from the bottom plate, wafting up around the pea tendrils. Amazing!!


The wood sculpture of Melissa & Graeme Engler was pared with braised butternut squash, garden crust, pickled melon jus, basil cream and local snap pea.

The wood sculpture of Melissa & Graeme Engler was pared with braised butternut squash, garden crust, pickled melon jus, basil cream and local snap pea.


John Almaguer's Venetian glass vase was pared with sous vide beef tenderloin, sweet pea puree and butter poached North Carolina shrimp.

John Almaguer's Venetian glass vase was pared with sous vide beef tenderloin, sweet pea puree and butter poached North Carolina shrimp.


Hayden Wilson's Venetian glass vase was pared with vanilla cheesecake, blueberry cream puff, blueberry compote, with chocolate Chantilly and lemon sauce.

Hayden Wilson's Venetian glass vase was pared with vanilla cheesecake, blueberry cream puff, blueberry compote, with chocolate Chantilly and lemon sauce.

What a night. I'm dieting today, but not too strict -- these portions last night were small, but I have to say, it's the best tasting food I've ever had. This was gastronomic art at it's best.

The Biltmore Estate

"Autumn Afternoon at the Biltmore" 

"Autumn Afternoon at the Biltmore" 

"Autumn Afternoon at the Biltmore" began with a request from a local couple back in December. They were visiting my Asheville art studio and gallery and it turns out they have season passes to the Biltmore Estate and were describing a scene which featured the narrow road between the reflection pond and the French Broad River. After agreeing on the size and price, they went back to the Biltmore and took photos which became the basis for this piece.

This was a challenging piece in that the composition is not just based on one photo but five. For instance, the boat in the foreground was in a separate photo and the sun burst in the trees was in another photo. The actual roadway has vegetation on the side of the river that pretty much blocks the view of the water so...for this painting, we did a bit of judicious weeding. At the very last minute, Canada geese were added into the reflection pond at the request of my clients and since I have a soft spot in my heart for ducks and geese, I added them happily. Honestly, what I am describing is one of the most important aspects of a commission: I'm not just painting a scene, but assembling a composition based on five photos which encapsulated all the warm memories this couple has of days of wandering and hiking around the Biltmore Estate. The result (I hope) is not just a nice painting but something sentimental. I painted memories in this one and had a great time doing it and the fact that the Biltmore Estate is the subject matter made it even better. 

The first year Joy and I moved to Asheville, we purchased season passes to the Biltmore as well. It's a great way to really enjoy not just the amazing house but the grounds as well. There are literally miles of trails to hike and several gardens to explore such as the formal and informal gardens designed by the amazing landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. If you have the chance to visit Asheville, North Carolina, it's definitely worth saving your pennies to visit. And...if you end up taking an awesome photo during your visit, send it my way! 



About Ice...

Glacier overall.jpg

A few months ago, the artists in my building (Pink Dog Creative) on Depot Street in Asheville's River Arts District were asked to consider being a part of an art exhibit which would correspond with the 2018 meeting of ClimateCon, a collaborative gathering of business and science professionals who come together to advance the development of data-driven products and services. This year's meeting is in Asheville (for more info, check out

So, in thinking about the task of creating a piece of artwork that has something to do with the environment was somewhat challenging. My artwork is nature landscapes mostly so you could say that ALL my artwork has to do with the environment. But I wanted to try something different (because that's more fun).

The Research Begins...

So I was looking on line at "climate change photos" and I saw a photo of a glacier with some craggy mountains and blue sky in the background. I loved the blues in the ice. It almost looked like an abstract painting. So...there was my idea. I painted a glacier. I cut out the mountains and sky and just focused on the ice. And I had a blast.

So as I've painted this piece, I've been doing research on polar ice caps and I've been trying to find an answer (a clear answer would be nice) to the (seemingly) very simple question: "Are the polar ice caps actually melting?" Just so you know what I had to deal with in piecing together a cogent answer to that question...

A Summary of my Vast Scientific Research Follows:

In a NASA article entitled "Mass Gains of Antarctic Ice Sheet Greater than Losses"...

“We’re essentially in agreement with other studies that show an increase in ice discharge in the Antarctic Peninsula and the Thwaites and Pine Island region of West Antarctica,” said Jay Zwally, a glaciologist with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of the study, which was published on Oct. 30 in the Journal of Glaciology. “Our main disagreement is for East Antarctica and the interior of West Antarctica – there, we see an ice gain that exceeds the losses in the other areas.”  Zwally added that his team “measured small height changes over large areas, as well as the large changes observed over smaller areas.”

So, ice is growing!

Well, not so fast. There's more...

Also from NASA, an article entitled "End-of-Summer Arctic Sea Ice Extent is Eighth Lowest on Record",

 Arctic sea ice, the layer of frozen seawater covering much of the Arctic Ocean and neighboring seas, is often referred to as the planet’s air conditioner: its white surface bounces solar energy back to space, cooling the globe. The sea ice cap changes with the season, growing in the autumn and winter and shrinking in the spring and summer. Its minimum summertime extent, which typically occurs in September, has been decreasing, overall, at a rapid pace since the late 1970s due to warming temperatures.
This year, temperatures in the Arctic have been relatively moderate for such high latitudes, even cooler than average in some regions. Still, the 2017 minimum sea ice extent is 610,000 square miles (1.58 million square kilometers) below the 1981-2010 average minimum extent."

So is sea ice growing or shrinking???

According to Forbes,

"Updated data from NASA satellite instruments reveal the Earth’s polar ice caps have not receded at all since the satellite instruments began measuring the ice caps in 1979. Since the end of 2012, moreover, total polar ice extent has largely remained above the post-1979 average. The updated data contradict one of the most frequently asserted global warming claims – that global warming is causing the polar ice caps to recede.

GREAT NEWS! So they're not melting AT ALL!

Oh wait...

According to The Guardian,

The Arctic ice cap melted to hundreds of thousands of square miles below average this summer, according to data released late on Tuesday.

So they're melting? Well yes. And no. It turns out the arctic ice cap is melting (you can see satellite images that clearly show the extent). But the antarctic ice cap is growing AND shrinking, but overall growing.

According to Inside Climate News,

"While Arctic ice is melting at a record pace, a team of NASA-led researchers say they can explain why Antarctic sea ice has been edging in the opposite direction. That paradox has puzzled scientists for years and given climate-change deniers fodder to dispute global warming.
The group found that the icy winds blowing off Antarctica, as well as a powerful ocean current that circles the frozen continent, are much larger factors in the formation and persistence of Antarctic sea ice than changes in temperature.
The mighty Southern Ocean Circumpolar Current prevents warmer ocean water from reaching the Antarctic sea ice zone, helping to isolate the continent. The winds within that ice zone keep the water extremely cold, enabling the sea ice cover to grow in recent years even as global temperatures have risen markedly.
The findings are based on satellite readings of Antarctic sea ice movement and thickness, as well as new, detailed interpretations of charts showing the shape of the sea bottom around Antarctica. They were published online this month in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment.
Arctic sea ice and glaciers around the world have been dwindling quickly. And scientists have published dire warnings that several ice shelves in West Antarctica are being undermined by warm currents where they connect to the ocean floor. That melting phenomenon is expected to lead to significant, unavoidable sea rise over centuries.

So, my glacier painting will most certainly not make the polar ice cap grow rather than shrink. But it might get people thinking, talking and debating. And if that's all a piece of artwork does, well then...I can definitely live with that.





Angsty or Terrified?

So last week, as I said in an earlier entry, a husband and wife breezed through my Asheville art studio/gallery without saying a word to me and then left, sitting down on the chairs right outside my door (which was open -- with me working just inside said door). At that point, the man said (loud enough for me to hear) "well I know, but it's ridiculous! I wouldn't pay half what he's asking for that!"

To that man, I would like to say "thank you for your rudeness. You gave me something  to write about in my blog!" Because of that encounter, I began thinking about how best to respond to critique and I am taking this platform to share my thoughts to anyone interested. I have already addressed what I call the "angsty" artist who doesn't care WHAT anyone thinks about their craft (whether it's painting, writing, music or whatever). They do not digest criticism because they immediately deflect it.

The other type of artist I know is not angsty at all. They are frightened and completely insecure, not wanting ANYONE to see their artwork.  Putting their art out there for people to actually see absolutely terrifies them. I tried to teach art students who were the "terrified" type, but found them just as difficult to teach as the arrogant students who would not listen to my advice or instruction. I remember a young woman that was in the class I was teaching. She was working hard on a painting, but when I walked over to her desk to see how it was coming along, she swept it up and hid it from me. "Please don't look! It's a mess! Yours is so much better!" If you can relate to this woman,  may I gently suggest that the "terrified" artist is not that much different from the "angsty" artist? See, neither the angsty or terrified person them allows any criticism or correction -- they just take different emotional roads to the very same end.  Whichever side we fall on, we can be categorized as arrogant.

"Arrogant?" I hear the terrified artist type cry. "I'm not arrogant!" (The angsty artist doesn't see themselves as arrogant either.)

Well, follow me here. The angsty type doesn't listen to any criticism and neither do you. In my opinion, whichever side we fall on, we all think far too much of ourselves. The terrified artists (I was one of you  at once point) think we have to be perfect at what we do and critique is crushing and to be avoided. The angsty artist thinks he's already perfect, and critique is pointless and unnecessary in his mind and is to be avoided. So what's the difference?

Both the angsty and terrified artist (or whatever) types need critique. We need to be okay with correction and advice. When I finish what I think was a great idea and no one pays any attention to it, I may have to conclude that the idea may be great to me, but if the people purchasing art do not agree, I won't be selling that piece. If this is repeated with all my work, then I'm out of a job.

A professional artist has to listen to critique and adjust sometimes. Hopefully as we mature, we begin to know the difference between a good critique and someone just being rude. I think we need to feel the freedom to toss what we think is bad advice. I also think we need to feel the freedom to accept advice with humility, and that's admittedly really hard to do sometimes.

"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.


"Valley of Shadows"

Valley of Shadows.jpg

Valley of Shadows

In September 2017, Joy and I visited a good friend in Munich, Germany. While there, we explored what is left of the concentration camp at Dachau. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw and felt. 

Visitors to Dachau are very quiet. It's a horrible and holy place. The weight of the evil is still there. You can still feel it. I think it will always be palpable. It should be. I left Dachau needing to express my own grief. This painting is that expression.

Notes about Valley of Shadows
1) Featured on the far left of this piece is the iron gate with the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Makes you Free). This gate was the way in, but rarely the way out.


2) Moving to the right, set against and gray and blue stripes reminiscent of the uniform prisoners were given to wear is the gold star of David, beneath which are the countless souls who suffered here.


3) Moving to the far right, I inserted a scene from the Arch of Titus in Rome, featuring Roman soldiers carrying off the menorah from the temple in Jerusalem (another time of absolute grief and horror). It is at this point, against the blackness, I inserted a symbol of hope. Hope is displayed near the far right of the canvas, carrying the eye off the artwork...onto...what? That is what hope does -- carries our imagination into the unknown, with the assumption that goodness and beauty and life is coming soon.


"Even when I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of death,
I will not fear, because You are with me.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me." Psalm 23:4

Catawba Falls

North Carolina waterfall

I love Catawba Falls. It's a really beautiful waterfall at the end of a (sometimes steep) trail just down the mountain from us in Old Fort, North Carolina. The trail winds along the river and ends at a cliff and this really beautiful waterfall and pool (great for swimming in summer by the way). 

Joy and I discovered Catawba Falls with the help of my daughter Camden. She had hiked here before and told us about the trail so...we had to discover it ourselves. This is one of countless waterfalls within an hour of our home here in Asheville. What an amazing thing it is to be a landscape painter in the River Arts District, so close to so much...uh...landscape! We try to get out and hike every day off (weather and house chores permitting). 

This painting was commissioned by some very nice folks (Asheville locals) who came into my art studio and asked a question I LOVE to get asked: "Do you do commissions? We have a specific photo of a very special place to us". I love that. Of course, I was excited to talk to them about the project (about half of what I sell are commissions). I love commissions for many reasons. They are a pre-paid painting so uh, that's nice. But it's also a great way to not only get a nice piece of art (I'll keep painting it until it IS a nice piece of art) but it's also the opportunity to create something sentimental to the client. I've painted photos from honeymoons and vacations all over the world. 

So...Catawba Falls is done and is to be picked up this week. If you want directions to the trail, just email me or swing by my Asheville studio. Cheers!