Embers Under Flame

The big questions come up again and again:  "Why?"  That's the biggest.  Why do I do this?  Why do I keep doing this?  Why do I spend most of my waking hours in a dark room by myself looking at myself drawing myself?  What is the point?  Who benefits from this and what might those benefits be?  What is the inherent value in what I do?  Why make art?

I try to apply the same skill I use in drawing to answer these questions.  I step back from them, I shake off any preconceived notions about them and I try to look at them with fresh honest eyes and register accurately what I see, think, feel.

-Why?  I draw because I am in the rhythm of drawing.  It's habitual, and it's my job.  It is how I make a living and support my family.  I really didn't know that I was going to write that just now, but it feels pretty solid.  If  I couldn't make a living at it, art would take a back seat.  If there was a pie chart illustrating the different motivating forces that made me step up to the drawing board every morning, "make a living to support my family" would be the pie and "beauty," "truth," and "world improvement" would be some of the little slices. The trajectory of my career started long ago with different motivations that include a dazzling passion for making and looking at drawings, but that impetus gets buried by the daily grind.  I cringe as I write this because I get the sense it is not what I'm supposed to say.  I am supposed to say that I wake up with a pounding need to create.  I am supposed to say I cannot live without my art.  This is the myth of the artist I am "supposed" to perpetuate, but the truth is always richer and layered and much more saturated with poetry.  The truth is that I've tried to build my life around small sparks of passion and I have been surrounded by support and assistance in building such a life.   The truth is that my parents deserve as much credit for the art I make as I do, that the work is the result of so many people focused on stoking those small sparks of wonder and curiosity into a self perpetuating fire.  The youthful passions of artistic expression are still there, but life has happened to and around them and they take constant work and discipline to maintain.  The flames of youthful impetus are embers now.  The fire is not dying as I age, but concentrating.  It is not that I cannot live without making a drawing everyday, it is that I have built a life that functions with everyday drawing as the combustion driving the engine.  "Embers Under Flame" is the result.

In much of my work fabric relates to family and community - many threads coming together in unison to make something more than the individual.  In "Embers Under Flame"  I was wanting to touch on the ambiguous separation between the individual and the whole.  I wanted a reflection of this notion that I am both fractionally responsible for my life and entirely responsible.  I wanted the sense that the two elements in the drawing were in a state of co-creation.  The hexagonal pattern of thread on the skin aims to illustrate another layer of this strange self-to-whole relationship of cells to organism.  This piece is partnered with Baptism which speaks about this microscopic-macroscopic connection with a bit more volume.  Each piece in this series has a partner piece, which allows its theme to jump outside the confines of its perfect rectangle (each piece is a representation of the PHI ratio in their dimensions 82.5" x 51")and continue the iterations of the pattern outward with the force of a collective.

It might not look it, but this piece is the most wildly divergent work I've done for some time.  It doesn't look too tangential to the other pieces in this series but the process of making this drawing was a brand new undertaking.  It is the first time I have worked from a photograph.  For the longest time I could be heard Poo-pooing photorealism as an entirely inferior means of image making.  "It's too easy" I would say, "the human element that translates three dimensional objects to two dimensions, is gone and instead you just copy the lines.  There is no life in the process and thus no life in the resulting image."  I started to hear myself wearing a deep groove in that record, playing it over and over again without stepping back to take an honest look at it.  My dogma came into question with Chuck Close.  I remember the first time I saw a Chuck Close portrait and it is fair to say it was pretty mind blowing.  There is an impressive sense of integrity and dedication to seeing that he manages to elicit from his work with photos.  As the number of people who work from photos increased, my poo pooing of them began feeling dismissive and isolating.  I decided the only way to resolve my conflicting feelings about working from photos was to give everything I had to it to see if there is a gem worth mining there.

I recently met a photographer who shoots with a custom Swiss made box camera onto an 8 x 10 negative.  This means it can capture an immense amount of detail.  I was interested in the patten of pore separation on my skin and so I rubbed charcoal dust and ink onto my face and wiped it all off leaving remnants in the wrinkles and cracks and pores.  I then rubbed oil evenly over my skin so every detail would have a large range of contrast from saturated dark to tiny highlight.  I had the photo printed at the size I wanted to draw it, about 5 feet tall, and as I was preparing to begin drawing I took a nasty spill and blew my ankle out.  I thought I had broken it.  I usually work standing but this injury left me confined to a chair with my foot elevated and suddenly I felt a different respect for Chuck Close who is wheelchair bound.  I had requested some deeper understanding of his work and here I was getting more than I bargained for.  So I rearranged the studio set up and turned the piece on its side so I could fit my wounded leg under the piece and elevate it with ice.  I gridded the photo into 2" x 2" squares and placed it where I wanted it on the paper.  I then raised the photo 2" up and began copying the squares into the 2" space below.  As I proceeded upwards, I would cut a section of the grid off the photo and  copy the new row just below it.

In this photo the forehead and hair above the lower eye has been drawn and the cheek below the eye has yet to get the surface detail of the photo.  The white paper in the middle of the face I put there to eliminate distraction and temptation to copy more than the square I was on.  It took two months to complete the face and after those two months I stepped back and reassessed my thoughts about working from photos.  I had predicted that I would learn something new about my face, about the pattern of the pores I have been studying, or about the proportions of microscopic landmarks on my skin.  This did not happen.  Instead what I learned was exactly how much time was required to give an equal amount of focus to each square inch of an image that size.  I learned that a dynamic image can be made from those hours of tedium.  I learned that I can do it and that I will never do it again.  I have been drawing my face every day for almost eight years and I just figured out that it is endlessly fascinating.  I am back to my magnifying mirrors and the ever engaging process of looking.  I learned how much I really love what I do, how exciting and limitless honest visual investigation is. I feel dangerously close to justifying my poo-pooing of photorealism now, but the truth is, it just ain't for me.

In this photo you can see one of the sixteen stencils cut for each color in the cloth.

So... Why?  What's the point?  I wonder if Michelangelo wondered the same thing after four years of hacking away at the hunk of marble soon to be David.  I imagine he didn't.  When I went to Italy I was floored by the currency, the Lire.  The most common bill had Maria Montessori on it, a teacher, and the rest had artists.  That was the order of respect in the culture and the result was one of the most beautiful cities man has created.  Drinking water flowed into town and poured out of magnificent fountains; homes and public halls were painted with frescoes.  Life was elevated to ecstatic experience (yes, there were brutal consequences to the opulence and atrocities committed for public spectacle, but those things are present in our culture with the strip mall as the height of expression).  I come around to the realization that art is a means of celebrating the wonders of being alive.  Isn't it strange that I should wonder why I do it?  What forces are responsible for my even questioning its legitimacy?  What kind of culture creates artists who wonder why we make art?       Here come the Big Questions again.