Every spring, Margaret and I, along with our friends Dave and Sue, head to a state park here on Long Island.  We buy a permit, get in our trucks, blast bluegrass music, and go off roading through the woods to search for a fallen maple or oak.  We wind our way around lakes, through trails.  After spending a few hours with chainsaws, we have a few trees in the back of our pickup trucks.  Then we head home, drink homemade beer, and begin splitting the wood with axes.

Now, I'm not going to deny that both Dave and I are trying to undo the fact that he is a nurse, and I am an artist.  It's as if this act of wood chopping is penance for our careers that aren't necessarily brimming with masculinity.  We never mention this, of course- it's just understood.  And chopping wood is, in general, a purification rite for people as deeply embedded in suburbia as ourselves.

I started this painting a year ago, a pretty large canvas, and then abandoned it.  Aint got no reason how come, suppose I jes got busy elsewheres.  I resumed the painting today, and hopefully breathed some fresh life into it.  Still needs a lot of work, though.


I have been painting a woman named Patricia over the course of ten months now.  I met her in a local cafe in Islip, and asked her if she would be interested in posing for a painting.  She gave a warm "yes", and had an air of familiarity with being painted.  I was a bit surprised, until she showed me some photos on her iPhone.  She had been a model for Paris Vogue, her image on the side of Times Square as a model for Cartier jewelry, among other things in the fashion world.  Then, she left the fashion world to pursue a career in Biochemistry.  As she made her way through college, she worked in an obscure cafe on our Main Street.  She's an incredible person to paint, but challenging- in a fascinating way.  Some people have such a harmony of proportions, such physical beauty, that any small variation means that the whole harmony has been thrown off.  Aside from this painterly challenge, I've been beset by obstacles, I've been artistically stumped, I've been painterly perplexed, I've been distracted by so many different events...  This painting has changed positions so many times, so many ways... my view of Patricia has evolved, leaving such different impressions on the canvas...  limbs have been moved up and down, left and right... hair has been put up, then down... eyes have been pensive, then glad, then melancholy, then hopeful... Through all of this searching, I arrived at something, someone, a beauty that I could never have planned.  I had to find it, with failure being my stepping stone all of the way.  I'm still not finished.  I haven't gotten the chance to paint Patricia's legs in yet- I spent today wiping out the previous position of her legs, as I didn't like how they were tucked away.  I'll keep searching for the conclusion.

Patricia, 60" x 50", oil on linen

the tired truck

Yesterday, I packed my paintbrushes, field easel, and palette and headed out.  I don't consider myself to be a plein air painter, but on occasion I need to clear my head, breathe fresh air, and get a sunburn on my pasty Irish neck.

I'm never attracted to traditional plein air subjects.  I am thoroughly bored by the act of painting rolling green fields, cumulonimbus skies, a broad expanse of water.  And yet, I do appreciate a well painted landscape, provided it was not painted by me.  I am, however, drawn to portraits of man made things in dialogue with the wasting effects of nature.  I am equally as moved by a proud Roman column being eroded by centuries of wind and rain, as I am by a tired old truck, living out its last days after a life of hard work, contentedly succumbing to nature's bleaching and rusting.

Like the truck, I found myself exhausted by politics, by people.  And like the truck, I sought a quiet oasis.  And so, nestled away in a quiet corner of Islip, with a canalside community of contented trailer homes on my left, with disinterested, dilapidated commercial fishing boats baking in green, brackish canals on my right, I had my communion with a tired truck.

Poussin was a classical painter who painted for the French court.  One day, after a day of wandering the halls of the royal palace, in which the women would come and go and talk of Michelangelo, Poussin said (and I quote) "Man, 'nuf a dis crap.  Peace out."  So, he done gone packed his bags and moved to Rome, a decaying, crumbling city of savages.  He continued to sell his paintings to the French court, and continued his dialogue with the court from a distance.  Poussin painted in peace, in the quiet ruins of Rome, until his death in 1665.  He is now buried in San Lorenzo in Lucia, in Rome.

I love Islip.

Old Blue Whitecap, oil on panel, 8" x 8"

the squall

A friend of mine told me a story once.  She was with her family, out on the boat in the south bay.  Down in the cabin, holding her child, she looked out the porthole and saw that the sky had turned black, the water turned white, and many boats in the distance had capsized.  It was a summer squall, which came all at once and without warning.

This past week, a lot of things happened around me.  I didn't have time to paint, but I did come across this poem, written by Victor Hugo after reading Dante.

After Reading Dante

The poet, when he painted hell, was painting
His life: a fleeing shade, ghosts at his back;
An unknown forest where his timid footsteps
Had lost their way, strayed from the beaten track;
A somber journey clogged with strange encounters,
A spiral -- its depth vast, its boundaries blurred-
Whose hideous circles went forever onward
Through the dark where hell's creatures dimly stirred.
There were complaints perched upon every parapet:
The steps vanished in vague obscurity,
Within those dismal regions of grim darkness
White teeth seemed to be gnashing plaintively
Visions were there, reveries, and chimeras,
Eyes turned by sorrow into bitter springs,
Love, a yoked couple, ever burning, wounded,
Whirling along in wretched spiralings;
Revenge and famine, those rash sisters, squatting
Together by a well-gnawed human head
In one dark corner, next to them, ambition
Pale smiling misery; pride, ever fed
On its own flesh, vile lechery; foul avarice -
All of the leaden cloaks that burden souls!
Further along, fear, cowardice, and treachery,
With keys for sale, and drink in poisoned bowls;
Deeper still, at the bottom of the chasm,
Was the tormented mask of suffering hate.
Yes, poet, that is life indeed -- we plod through
Just such a foggy obstacle-clogged state!
But to complete the scene, on this cramped way was
Virgil; his brow was calm, and his eyes shone,
He stood at your right hand, constantly visible,
Serenely telling you: "Keep going on!"

a friend coming to town

So, my family and I have returned from the hills of Maine.  It was one of the most relaxing times of my life.  I had no internet service up there, towards the end of the stay, so please pardon the dearth of blogging.  In addition, it always takes a day or two to recover from a trip.  Returning to New York with two screaming kids in the car is akin to a satellite reentering earth's orbit in a flaming ball.  All the while, you wonder whether you are going to survive that final stretch, or be consumed in a flaming blaze of cholicky screams.

I have wonderful news.  My friend Jason, the marble carver, is coming to town.  I've written about him before in this blog, in the September 5th entry.  Jason has been able to find a wonderful situation here on Long Island.  Gallery North, in Setauket, is hosting him for three months as their artist in residence.  I'm really amazed by their generosity, in that he is being accomodated with housing, studio, and overall support of all the members of the gallery!  He will be teaching workshops, giving lectures, sculpting marble on site, working on a bronze bust commission.  I'm really looking forward to having a good friend of mine from Florence, who sculpts in a similar vein as I paint, and who will now be living a short drive away.  Such good news!

To explain this photo, hang with me for a moment.  Here is a photo taken by another artist friend of mine, Jennifer Pitt.  The photo is of a cast, which is of the statue of Saint Mark.  Did I lose you yet?  When a marble sculpture is created, a cast is made of it in plaster.  The cast itself can sometimes take on an aesthetic value in and of itself, and become art.  Jason carved and installed the life sized statue of St. Mark in the facade of St. Mark's Anglican Church in the historic city center of Florence.   He then cast the bust (head and shoulders) of it in plaster, then donated the cast to St. Mark's Anglican.  Then my friend Jenny stumbled across it, and took this painterly photo.

A part of me is always in Florence, with my friends at the Cecil Studios.  I can't tell you how wonderful it is for me to have those friends visit here, at my home in New York.  I really do dream of a movement of art happening in this area, a movement in which people return to a type of art that is intimate with the natural world.  Painting and sculpting from natural light, drawing from living people and not photos, painting landscapes that were done in meadows, not in jpegs... marble and dust, oil and linen... I really think this return to beauty in nature is exactly what Long Island needs, and is birthing.

Who knows, maybe this movement on Long Island will result in some of the pestiferous, plastic, PVC, picket fences being torn down, and replaced with soothingly senescent cedar, and rusting, red wrought iron.

Jason Arkles, plaster cast of marble statue of St. Mark.  Photo by Jennifer Pitt.

new hampshire

June Nights

In summer, when day has fled, the plain covered with flowers

Pours out far away an intoxicating scent;

Eyes shut, ears half open to noises,

We only half sleep in a transparent slumber.


The stars are purer, the shade seems pleasanter;

A hazy half-day colours the eternal dome;

And the sweet pale dawn awaiting her hour

Seems to wander all night at the bottom of the sky.

-Victor Hugo

the (too) united states of america

We set out before dawn, giddy with escapist ecstasy as we crossed the Throgs Neck Bridge.  Yes indeed, Margaret, the boys, and I were ready for something different.  We were saturated with Long Island, our nomadic tendencies having been stifled by expressways and franchises.  We were off to New England.

As we rolled through hills and forests, beneath cloudy canopies that seemed as if set upon a single sheet of glass, I wondered to myself "What be the fare of the local folk in these yonder worlds-  what type of ale drinketh they?   What sumptuous repast awaits my palette?   What are the cheeses which no Long Island tongue has henceforth tasted, the carnivorious delights which no man from my world hast ever partaken of?"  And so with the trepidation  of Marco Polo in the unknown seas, we turned off the interstate in a most scenic patch of sylvan, emerald coniferous rapture, interspersed with deciduous arboreal delight.  And amongst these watchful trees, we entered the town.

The first store was a Target, the second was a Staples, the third was a Home Depot, the fourth was a Borders, the fifth was a McDonalds, the sixth was a Dunkin Donuts, the seventh was a Burger King, the eighth was a Cracker Barrell, the...

I'm sure you get it.

Who killed all the mom and pop's- the small shop?  And following the genoocide of this most important cell structure of the American identity, why did these towns allow these hulking franchise carcasses to mar the remaining beautiful American terrain?

I'm sorry, I'm pretty frustrated.  Emily Dickinson's Massachusetts, Thoreau's Walden Pond, have been deconsecrated.

In order to stay awake, I got a cup of coffee in Islip at Dunkin Donuts.  It was the only place open at 4:30 in the morning.  In order to stay awake, I turned off the interstate at random intervals, only to find that the coffee venues were exactly the same.  Not only that, the buildings housing the Dunkin Donuts were exactly the same.  Not only that, the bathrooms were in the same spot.  We wound through one hillside town after another, happening upon chain after chain, and all that I thought is: this can't be healthy for our national mental health.

Sometimes I think that America is too united, that we could do with a little inefficiency, and division.  I know that Abe Lincoln would not be keen with me uttering this, but this united country can be too united.  So united it's homogenous.  So homogenous it's monoculture.  So one that it is all too susceptible to systemic viruses.  I found myself wishing that, instead of Dunkin Donuts serving the same cup of coffee in fifty states, I wish that we had fifty different regions with fifty different severe dialects serving travelers fifty different cups of coffee.

I'm secretly wishing for the dissolution of the EU, so that they might be spared coffee conformity.

But now, I sit in the hills of blessed New Hampshire.  Far from the saddening sameness of the interstate, I am in a cabin, in the woods.  And I had some really good soup that some guy made with vegetables from his own garden.  So, I guess it's not all that bad.


About ten days ago, a friend of Margaret's passed away.  Cassie had been suffering from cancer, and had hidden it pretty well from everybody.  Her death shocked us.

I haven't written a blog in a while, because I haven't had anything to say.  I've been grieving, I suppose, and also unable to clear my head.  When somebody that close dies, it leaves you asking the most fundamental questions, with no answers falling from the sky.  In this state, I've been maintaining my normal routine- teaching classes, painting with models, hanging out with friends in their backyards, changing diapers.

This morning, Liam and I were walking back from church.  I was sad, my thoughts distracted, and Liam was happily babbling and chirping away.  Suddenly, we came across a bird on the road, a songbird that had, midflight, somehow fallen out of the sky.  It was dead, and I was relatively unmoved, and nudged Liam along to keep moving.  And Liam said, "No, no, no, no, the birdy, the birdy."  His cries brought my attention to this beautiful bird.  How very unearthly this bird suddenly appeared, I suddenly could see it with the awe and wonder of Liam's eyes.  It participated in something divine.  And then, Liam said "No birdy, no ground.  Fly, fly."

I suddenly understood what Liam meant.  It was not supposed to be on the ground, something tragic had taken place.  It wasn't supposed to die.  And Liam was right.  This beautiful bird was artwork in the highest form, and was never meant to be destroyed.  The artist had created, and something had stepped in and destroyed the work- but the artist never intended that.

And at that moment, I understood that we were never meant to die.  Cassie was not supposed to die, she was the work of God's hands.  Somebody, something, has tainted this beautiful world.  There is no way that such beauty is created, simply to be destroyed.  And on the heels of that thought I understood eternity.  That the form passes, but the artist has made a plan for the essence to live on.

I grabbed a shovel from my garage, and Liam and I took the bird to our backyard and placed it under the holly tree.  And I knew that I had to draw this.  I thought of placing the bird on a white cloth, but then I realized that this bird did not die that way.  By drawing this bird on the shovel, I was some how imparting a dignity to the obscure things of this world.  I spent the next half hour drawing this, as Liam busied himself in the dirt nearby.  We buried the bird together.

People say that children don't understand death, but I would maintain that they have a much clearer vision of it than any adult.  They understand that this is not how it was supposed to be.  Adults grow to accept, but adults never understand.  And today, I truly understood that we are eternal, we are immortal works of art.  The form wastes away, but the essence will live on, just as the artist intended.

The Bird, pencil on Amatruda paper, 8.5 x 11

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father... -Jesus, Matthew 10:29

For we are God's masterpiece. -Paul, Ephesian 2:10

And this is what he promised us--even eternal life. - 1 John 2:25

the dialogue

I was pretty stumped today.  I had been working on a painting for the past few weeks, and I could not figure out what was wrong with it.  When I walked into the studio, first thing in the morning, the painting sat on the easel and mocked me.  I stared back at it, trying to pretend like I wasn't afraid of it.

Then, instead of picking up my brushes, I picked up a book of Sargent's drawings.  Then I picked up a sketchbook and a few pencils.  Then I walked up to the local cafe.

Sitting down with a cup of coffee, I did this sketch over the next hour, copying the original by Sargent.  I just wanted to glean something from this drawing, to acquire something from this beautiful sketch, to internalize this drawing, to digest it and to make it my own.  In making it my own, I could then take this energy and pour it into my own work.

I returned to my studio, and my painting went wonderfully.  I understood things, I saw things, most importantly I felt things.

This is one of the things I love most about painting.  I had a question about beauty, and so I went and asked Sargent.  Sargent gave me his answer.  Sargent had a question about beauty, and he went and asked Velazquez.  Velazquez gave him his answer.  Velazquez asked Rubens, Rubens asked Titian, Titian asked Michelangelo, Michelangelo asked a Greek sculptor from Rhodes...  I had a dialogue, today, with some of the greatest minds in history.

Further along these lines is the notion of immortality through art.  I was able to discuss an idea with men that had died millenia before.  Dante writes in the Inferno, canto XXIV, that immortality is achieved through literature, in that the dialogue between living and dead continues.  Dante goes on to say that if the memory of you lives on in somebody's mind, then that in and of itself is a form of immortality.

It's funny, I never find myself contemplating thoughts of greatness, thoughts of fame.  But, I am always hoping that I might be part of the dialogue.

Copy after Sargent, graphite on Amatruda paper, 8 x 11

"When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than our, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.' "

Keats, excerpt from Ode on a Grecian Urn