There is a stage every painting I create goes through at the very beginning that I fall in love with almost every time. It’s not the polished end-game, it’s the initial quick sketch with the first few thin washes of color applied. There is something about that first reaction to the scene before me that happens almost by itself. It is purely joyful to me. After that stage I usually begin the arduous stage of building, building, building layer upon layer of heavier and heavier paint, just pushing, pushing until the painting finally looks like “my work” whatever the hell that is supposed to be… all I know is that it nearly sucks the life out of everything. Oh, I like the finished results in the end, but the whole thing is a just chore to get to that place. The painting becomes only about the end result and the process become mechanical, and contains very little mystery to me after that initial sketch stage.
For the last several years I’ve been grinding against this process, pushing painting after painting through the corridors of strained conformity to an expected standard of completion.
Until this one.
At Wine by the Sea this year I arrived fresh off a bender of live painting all weekend at the Redwood Coast Music Festival, sneaking in a quick break from painting there to come out to this wonderful event and… paint some more. With more live music! I am seriously the most spoiled artist in the world sometimes. After my initial sketch was laid out (with all the joy I previously mentioned) I went on a beer run (about 12 steps from my easel) and when I returned I saw the sketch just sitting there in its joyful glory, not asking for anything of me. This is awkward. I tried to tell it that I was at an event, this was a fundraiser, and I was expected to deliver something more, but this fun little sketch was a stubborn bugger, just sitting there all beautiful and in need of nothing. Reminded me of my wife. I realize this is not an argument I can win. In fact it’s probably not one I should even be having.
So I step away and discuss the matter with some lovely guests of the event, who showed themselves loyal friends and took my side in the matter, and yet… there she was, smiling in the misty breeze, entirely sure of herself. Dang. How can she do this to me? As I continued mulling over my problems to friends and strangers alike, something unusual happened. I heard myself. And upon hearing myself deliberating whether to push this painting that I love into becoming something it isn’t (for many great reasons, mind you), I couldn’t help but to see the obvious. There isn’t an artist in the world that I would advise continuing to push their work past it’s joyful place for the sake of living up to some external standard- real or imagined. No way.
You must listen to your work.
(and your wife)
And honor them both.
So that is what I chose.
This was a lot of fun to paint, and waaaay out of my comfort zone. If you know my work, you know what I mean. I’m a lot more comfortable painting rocks and trees inaccurately than I am doing the same injustices to the human form, but there they were, pouring themselves into their music for us only a few feet away. What could I do? I did my best. And this is where it landed.
It’s especially meaningful to me as I’ve painted at live events while dozens, possibly hundreds of musicians have played nearby, but never a group of musicians I’ve known as long as these guys. Usually I just paint whatever I feel like, flowing water, waves, etc, but today I felt like painting these guys while they did their thing. Our friendships go back over 25 years, long before, they played music together, before they formed Huckleberry Flint and proceeded to sell out shows. Long before two of them got the wild idea to figure out how to make chocolate from scratch and winning awards and selling chocolate all over the world as Dick Taylor Craft Chocolates. They even hired my oldest daughter and now she always smells like chocolate, and if we shake her hard enough, little bits of chocolate fall out of the hems in her shirt, and we laugh and make cookies. So yeah, this wasn’t just a painting of a band, this painting is a snapshot in time of friendships that have been forged over a lifetime.
Two things happened recently.
First, I spent a week exploring and painting along one of mainland California’s most remote and mysterious coastlines. Missile launch silos. American flags. Chain of command and all that. But this painting isn’t about that trip at all except for one detail. One morning on the beach, miles from the nearest pavement of any sort, I came across some paw prints on the beach. I’d heard of mountain lions on this coast, and somehow I always pictured those cats, well, up in the mountains. The thought of one of these majestic beasts with sand stuck between its toes got my imagination working.
Second, I was asked to come paint live at a fundraiser for a friend who’s running for elected office here in Humboldt. He’s commissioned artwork from me in the past and I ate an unwholesome amount of snacks at his Superbowl party one year without even watching the game. I have no way to know whether he’s the perfect fit for the job he’s seeking, but I do know that over the years he’s been a supporter of artists like myself, so while that means I am certainly biased, it also means he’s been a meaningful part of this community’s culture long before seeking public office.
I’m not a fan of political gamery at any level and try to steer clear at all costs. But then again, I’ve never had a collector or personal friend ask me to come and paint at their political fund-raiser before, so I didn’t give it much thought and next thing you know I have to figure out what to paint at a fancy politics party.
How do I get myself into these situations?
And then I remembered the mountain lion that prowled through my thoughts on that beach a few weeks earlier. It just felt right. Those cats are apex critters if there ever were, and truthfully politics is a game of apex aspirations. But what good is apex power without honest self-reflection? It’s no good at all, that’s what. Disastrous even. So our mountain lion stands over a tidepool, its silhouette reflecting in the clear waters below, revealing a vibrant ecosystem beneath the surface.
I know that sounds a little corny, but that’s what I thought about while painting this one.
And my hope for my friend and everyone else that seeks public office, is just what this painting portrays. That it’s not about just how to win and score points and use the power you seek to shape the world as you want it, but to also honestly reflect on your role in your community, our community. I can only hope that those who seek power will also take the time to look within and find the clarity to see all of us staring back in your reflection.