It’s a rare pleasure when I can carve out a little time away from my south Florida studio, escaping the ambitious schedule of multiple deadlines, exhibitions and writing assignments for which I only can blame myself. Be that as it may, I finally went on a real vacation with my wife Claudia, driving our shiny silver F-150 Ford truck as we headed out on a two week excursion into the deep south; our destination, a little town in South Carolina called Aiken. There we are staying at a friend’s house, the former Whitney estate, built in 1902. The grounds are magnificent, and the home itself is full of history, including a second floor billiard room that overlooks a two-story squash court. The tranquil atmosphere of this private estate offers us a great escape, where I can charge up my creative batteries. Originally built as a squash club designed by the celebrated architect Stanford White and used by the Rockefellers and Whitneys, there is one remaining two-story court that features sixteen skylights and twenty-four windows on each side, and it allows the best light for painting that I’ve experienced in my lifetime.
They say you can always take a person out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the person—that holds true for artists especially. Traditionally, artists took off to the far reaches of America during the summer months to develop and explore their skills and above all, experience the isolation and expected inspiration from outside their routine. Hans Hofmann, Motherwell and Guston, among others, were off to the tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown, America’s first art colony, while others, like Winslow Homer, left Maine for Key West, and de Kooning and Pollock moved to the Hamptons. Georgia O’Keeffe departed for Santa Fe (and stayed put, once she arrived), which ignited a spark that developed into a great art community in that city. The truth is that you really can’t be a serious artist part-time, which comes with the “labor of love” scenario that I’m so proud to say I was bitten by the art bug years ago.
To rest my brains (and eyes) and just chill out, I brought no editorial work with me; no museum or gallery reviews, no correspondence, and my iPhone turned off, but available in a pinch. Even though I had promised myself that I would leave behind a laptop, research papers and drafts of articles, I didn’t have the discipline to turn my back on gathering a variety of studio supplies, which seemed to fill half of the truck bed, topped off with six pre-stretched canvases tied down securely; these would later move into my temporary studio in the estate’s vintage squash court. I also brought five books that I have been wanting to read, but could never find the time: “Hamptons Bohemia” and “Such Desperate Joy: Imagining Jackson Pollack” by Helen Harrison, “Leonardo’s Brain” by Leonard Shlain, “Tom and Jack—The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock” and “Eakins Revealed” (sent to me by my friend Dale Chihuly one week before we left on our trip), both by Henry Adams. In addition, I brought with me scraps of vintage paper, photographs, stencils, art books, newspapers and old magazines for reference, from which I start developing collages through experimentation and intuition. For inspiration, I listened to my favorite music, including Thelonious Monk, Talking Heads and U2. In my work, I’m still mystified and excited over the notion that you can produce a visual, spatial illusion on a two-dimensional plane and then mix it around—adding, subtracting, polishing as you go—until you have what you were looking for.
When I make final decisions on a particularly successful collage, I start a process where the works are photographed and then transferred like a blueprint onto prepared canvases where the original image is increased substantially in size. As painting begins, it’s like meeting an old friend. No introductions are necessary—you don’t need to get acquainted, you can just start a visual dialogue with your very familiar material—and let experience guide your brush all the way to completion.
Artists need to celebrate the unique opportunity to be creative while of the rest of the world is pre-occupied with other things. I’m preparing my own celebration later as the sun sets with a fine vintage chardonnay, waiting for the fireflies to light up the night sky. I’m fortunate to have years of professional experience behind me, and am no longer looking for my own recognizable style to develop, as I’ve got all I need in that department. I am not compelled to sit until inspiration hits me between the eyes and I start to cultivate the idea into a tangible visual statement. All I need is a working title or subject in mind, and I’m ready to rock.
So that brings me back to my little July hideaway where I still devote afternoons indoors, standing in a room flooded with natural light and surrounded by my canvases, with a grand assortment of Winsor & Newton brushes and enough premium acrylic paints to last me until Christmastime.
The initial technical process of constructing a unique collage, which often becomes the maquette for a much larger painted work, is divided into three major components. The first requires great raw materials, which require foraging about to discover appropriate components acquired from sources such as secondhand stores and flea markets, and increasingly, the internet. Second is the necessity of separating these items back in the studio, organizing them into potentially usable categories, including landscapes, textures, patterns and figures. Third is a selection process of identifying a subject matter that also has an application to the type of images I like to assemble from scratch, unless it’s a collage on commission that requires certain elements.
The remaining process on the way to a completed collage is exacting and requires patience and concentration. The compositional essentials are first moved around on an blank white museum board until an picture starts to form, then the individual pieces of paper are then taped down temporarily with removable "magic" nonstick tape. The next step is to remove each individual piece after outlining their shapes on the board, until all the individual items are removed, leaving a numbered, oddly shaped design that looks like a puzzle board. Each bit of paper also receives a number on the reverse side that corresponds to the number in the middle of the outlined pencil shape. The progression of the gluing stage starts with the top one on the pile of the paper, each one separately brushed with glue and placed on their corresponding shapes and number on the board. After two days of drying out the glued down papers, I utilize a fine grit sandpaper to homogenize the sections and edges so that individual areas seem to mesh together. The last step is to add embellishments and watercolor to connect and cement the overall composition. It should be noted that my large-scale paintings obviously are inspired by my collages.
I am pleased to be associated with Tansey Contemporary, and I look forward to a long and successful professional relationship with the gallery. Santa Fe is such an inspiring and magical place, with its rich history, architecture and earth tone colors, that I always look forward to a return visit, and it remains a fascinating inspiration to me and to every artist I meet that also has spent time there.