my teacher

The cavernous room was quiet, save for the sounds of rickety easels recoiling from the advance of bristle brushes.  A soft, golden light descended from a large window that was high above all of our heads.  The smell of medium, turpentine, and cigarettes had been absorbed into the cracked plaster walls, and would eventually become an odour associated with art itself.  Footsteps quietly shuffled back and forth, artists walking away from the easel, now back again.  An occasional scooter came screaming down the alleyway, and its noise traveled up the flight of marble steps to our studio.  Nobody noticed, everyone was concentrating on the figure of a Serbian woman who was posing, seated at the far side of the room.  There were twelve of us painting, immersed in the calligraphic contour of the middle eastern woman, translating the observations from the felt world to the world of the canvas.

Suddenly, the silence was broken by the sound of footsteps at the bottom of the marble steps.  A unanimous groan went out, as every artist knew that the heavy heeled footsteps would soon bring some intruder to the door.  Up the marble steps the confident footsteps marched, their steady momentum indicating purposeful walking.  The hypnotic trance of painting had been broken, there would be a knock at the studio door any second now.

The door burst open, and in walked a short man who was face was swallowed by his heavy black trenchcoat, save for the plenteous burst of white whiskers which spilled out over his chest.  His forehead was particularly flat, with a broad expanse of furrowed wrinkles disappearing into dark eye sockets.  He stood with his legs widely spaced, his hands clenched behind his back, and his chin pointing up- he was assuming the position of importance.  All the artists in the room were English, save for myself, and at that moment I was particularly glad to be in their company.  The English have a wonderful way of being underwhelmed by anybody who demands attention.  They stood with their brushes in their hands, their eyelids low, cigarettes hanging from their disenchanted lips, heads cocked to the side- their body language choreographed to send the most confident intruder into awkward retreat.  But they did not know who they were dealing with.

"I am Pyotr Ilyovitch, head of Moskva Academy of Fine Arts, Professor Emeritus of Achademy Repin, ze only painter to win twice awards in Classical Figure, nine times elected to senior developer of ze Ecorchet Anatomic Studies, Recipient of Repin Award in Compositions, artistic advisor to scientific study paints at prestigious Hermitage Museum, and churrently am Painter in Residence at Russian School of International painting, Brussels.  I would like to speak with ze Charles Cecil."

Fifteen awkward seconds of silence elapsed, followed by "Quite right, I'll go and get Charles for you.  Wait here."

Two minutes later, the low bass of Charles' voice could be heard coming.  I couldn't quite make out words, but I knew from the intonation of his voice that he was in high spirits, and eager to speak with the guest.  Charles burst through the door, squinting at the light, brushing aside short hair that was perpetually in his face.  He had blue jeans on, and a tattered brown sport coat over a plain button down shirt.  He approached the black trenchcoat and whiskers with bounding steps, hand extended, and with his plain, midwestern American accent said "Hi, Charles Cecil, welcome."

And then, good heavens, it started all over again.  In a deep, booming monotone Russian drone, the visitor proclaimed "I am Pyotr Ilyovitch, head of Moskva Academy of Fine Arts, Professor Emeritus of Achademy Repin, ze only painter to win twice awards in Classical Figure, nine times elected to senior developer of ze Ecorchet Anatomic Studies, Recipient of Repin Award in Compositions, artistic advisor to scientific study paints at prestigious Hermitage Museum, and churrently am Painter in Residence at Russian School International painting, Brussels."

During the entire monologue, Charles stood with his hand thoughtfully placed on his chin, smiling softly.  When the final word had marched out of the man's mouth, Charles said in a booming, happy voice "Well, my my my.  Now- can you paint?"

The room exploded, we were all laughing pretty hard.  I had to leave the room because I was laughing so hard, I had tears rolling down my face.

Charles Cecil had absolutely no tolerance for artistic arrogance in any of its forms, whether it be the Doctor of Post Modern Studies in Woman's Ethnic Art of the University of Harvard,  or the head of the Repin Academy of Russia.  With a keen ability to fell the tallest oak with a single swing of his axe, he is a sort of John Bunyan of Baroque painting, a self described keeper of the gate.  He had created his world within Florence, and this world honored no titles.  I found this altogether heartening, because he specifically reached beyond my inconspicuous background, and treated me as well as any aristocrat who walked through his doors.

The interesting thing about Charles is that he is a self described "man who danced with a woman who danced with a man who danced with Marie Antoinette."  His connection to John Singer Sargent, through his study with Gammell, and Gammell with Paxton, is the single element of distinction which he unceasingly touts.  But deservedly so- he relayed to me an art that came from a different culture, a different people that trace back hundreds of years, through the French Academy, through the Flemish school, to the Spanish Baroque.  I'm not saying there is a direct connection between me and these eras, but I am saying that my prior schooling in art was entirely devoid of inspiration.  Studying with Charles was like having a dialogue with centuries.  He once told me that Gammell mandated that he become a teacher and not a painter;  Charles seemed particularly aware of the implications of this mandate, and asked me not to gloss over what he had done as I went on my way.

Zoe, by Charles Cecil, oil on linen

I once heard him define himself as an escapist, but he quickly clarified that there are periods of time in which it is necessary to escape.  In his view, Modern Art has distinguished itself not by building the Pantheon, but by tearing it down.  And so, he called for a retreat, and buried himself in the back alleyways of Florence.  Escapism entailed a rejection of the vicarious existence of modernity.  And so resulted the central tenets of his studio- paint with people and not from photographs, speak face to face rather than sorting through hulking bureaucratic systems of schools, paint something and not nothing (Sargent, not Pollock), experience a painting in person rather than googling an image onto a computer screen.  Experience the substance, not the shadow, because a shadow can never be had.

And so, forgive me for what may come across as sycophantry- I think that Charles is important at this point in art history, for the simple fact that he called for a return to humanity.

I was never on the very inside of the Cecil Studios circle, I was never a teacher, but I did spend a fair amount of time with Charles in the studio, restaurants, and wine bars.  I suppose I am writing this because I feel that history needs to remember him, and history might do well to hear the story from a person who wasn't exactly among the remnant of the studio.  I'm the contented, illegitimate child of Florence, New York, and Chile (details are fuzzy, allegedly a scandalous menage a trois).  However, I came and went to the studios three times, staying for six months, sometimes for a year.  I’ve written this today because I come across a lot of people in the New York art world that have never met Charles, yet have come to conclusions.  I also realize that many of my readers have heard me refer to this name, but have no idea of the impact Charles has had on me and a generation of artists.  And though I’m far from presenting a rounded synopsis of my teacher, perhaps this longwinded blog will help people understand the generous side that he always showed to me.

And so, I sullenly present to you BC.  Before Charles.  In order to illustrate my words, seeing is believing.  This was the first painting I had ever done, before l had the veil lifted off of my eyes.  I painted it under awful fluorescent greenish lighting, with an obnoxious palette of brilliant cadmium colours.  I was lost, and forty five minutes in, I gave up.  I contemplated never painting again, in order to spare mankind any undue suffering.

"The Awful Painting I want to Throw Out, But Keep to Remember", oil on linen, 18" x 24"

And now, I present to you AD.  After Da period of study with Charles.  This painting was done in Florence, over the period of six weeks.  This painting is the visual manifestation of my dialogue with centuries of artists, through the person of Charles.

Pabla, 18" x 24", oil on linen

Click on this link to read more on this, from a different author:

Here's a short film that was done to document the Cecil Studios:

somewhere in south america...

A few months after we got married, Margaret and I traveled through South America.  Somewhere north of the Atacama desert, or was it south?, we walked beside this church.  It was in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but low desert brush around it.  A few miles away, we came across some guy selling llama steaks that he had cooked over a clay charcoal pit on the side of the road.  There was nothing else for miles.  All the while we walked beneath a sky that was the strangest, deepest blue.  And so, I did this painting about six years ago, but I haven’t the clue where this church is- Peru, Bolivia, Chile.  That’s probably why I like this painting so much.

Have you ever read the BFG?  You should.  It is an excellent book by Roald Dahl.  The theme is that of a big giant who captures dreams with a net, bottles them, labels them, and then stores the dreams on the shelves in his cave.  At night, the giant gallops across the hills and seas, pries opens windows, and then lets the dreams loose in people’s rooms as they sleep.

Painters are, at best, like the BFG.  They take an intangible something, such as a church lost in the deserts of South America, or the fleeting beauty seen in the line of a young woman’s neck, and they bottle it, and then let it loose in people’s rooms, filling their heads with good thoughts.

the hurler

Here is a painting I did several years ago, at the Charles Cecil Studios in Florence.  I had a friend named Gearoid who was from Ireland, and he asked me if I wanted to join him on a painting.  I was glad to work with him, as he was a few years ahead of me in schooling.

Gearoid's father had been a hurler for Ireland's national team.  Don't know what hurling is?  Suffice to say, a bunch of angry Celts running around a field with 2 x 4 planks of wood, smashing eachother in the face, occasionally hitting the ball.  The ball resembles a baseball, only it is a piece of wood covered with leather.  As a boy, when I lived in Ireland, I remember that you could pick out the hurlers champions in a crowd of people- they had no teeth, and their noses appear to be cartilage with loose pieces of bones floating around inside.  What a great sport.

Gearoid says "Well, McEvoy, let's paint a hurler."  And so I say "Sure, why not?"  We set the model up, Gearoid worked on the left side of the model, and I worked on the right.  Our two paintings were so different, it was remarkable.  This was the first large painting I had ever worked on, so it was really new to me.  It was really fun, and I enjoyed all six weeks of working on this painting.  I didn't go for the shattered teeth and broken nose route, because I didn't actually have a busted up hurler to paint.  As it was still in my schooling stage of painting, I wanted to concentrate on learning to paint what I saw, rather than painting something which was thematically true.

A lot of people, typically men, have really liked this painting, although the theme of Irish hurler does not pertain to America.  The colours, dramatic lighting, clothing are all distinctly Irish.  And so the problem is that I have an enormous portrait of an Irish hurler, and 99% of New Yorkers have no clue what kind of sport I've painted.  I suppose it's somewhat like bringing a painting of an Australian didjeridu musician to Paris- the cultural resonance isn't so strong... The painting has to find it's home somewhere in Dublin, maybe I'll ship it in the near future.

Pop pop

I've been intending to paint my grandfather for a while now, though time quickly passes and I keep missing the opportunity.  But a month ago, my grandfather was in a hospital and near death.  I'm glad to say that he fully recovered from a blood infection, and shortly after being discharged I called him- I had to get him into my studio immediately.

My grandfather came over from Ireland sixty years ago.  He and my grandmother and their three children took the Queen Mary into New York harbour.  He told me that on the voyage over, he raised money by playing the fiddle while my grandmother danced.  When he got to New York, he borrowed a shovel and found a job digging cesspools.  He rode his bike all over the middle of Long Island, digging countless cesspools.  After a while, he learned the spackling trade.  That became his day job, and his night job was as a janitor at a local telephone company.

In addition to these two jobs, my grandfather, Bill McEvoy, was one of the founders of the American branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann.  The CCE is an Irish arts organization which has been crucial in the preservation and advancement of Irish music, song, dance, storytelling... all things Irish.  When my grandfather wasn't working, he was arranging tours across North America by Irish national musicians and dancers.  He's received numerous awards from both Ireland and cultural institutions in the states, so many awards I can't name them all.

Even though he is 87, he vehemently refused to be picked up and insisted on driving himself across Long Island to my studio.  He arrived promptly at one in the afternoon and said "Well, what in God's name are we going to do for this portrait, I've no idea what to do now."  He was smiling ear to ear, clearly thrilled to be sitting for a portrait by me, his grandson.  I explained to him what a portrait sitting went like, and he kept on laughing.  He just couldn't get over the fact that he was being painted.

The entire time that I painted, Pop pop (as he likes to be called) spoke about his life.  He knows that these stories will never will be heard if they are not relayed now.  He told me that I had a grand uncle, Jimmy Bryan, who was a well known seanchai, or a storyteller, who wandered Ireland with a bagpipe.   Jimmy told stories in taverns, where he was payed in food, drink, and a place to sleep.  Pop pop talked about the IRA, poverty, working on the Irish railroad, raising a family.  I never really understood how different eras produced different minds, and how oral history has been replaced by visual, until he began to recite poetry.  For fifteen minutes straight he recited whimsical poems about his town, his friends.  The poems were beautiful, but as he said, were obscure.  I wish I had recorded these poems in his lilting voice and heavy Laois accent.

All the while as I painted, Pop pop talked.  I worked feverishly for three hours, working through his breaks.  I had to capture him before he left.  I couldn't lose a moment- his face tilted to the side, his mouth slightly open, his shoulders at angles with his head.  And as I painted him, I found that our friendship was being mended.  He would share a story, I'd return it with my own, and we would both laugh.

His hands tell as much as his face, though I didn't get to paint them yet.  In terms of length, he and I have similar hands, only his hands are twice as wide.  They are ropey, muscular hands that look more like paws, a result of all of his years of heavy manual labour.

I didn't paint a flawless man, today.  I didn't paint a perfectly proportioned man, or a saint.  As can be the case in generational gaps, Pop pop is an enigma to me, an alien from another era.  A well known figure in the cultural Irish circles, and a riddle to his own grandson.  I decided that would paint the man in front of me.  Without idealization.  Sincerely.  Three hours later, my most optimistic assessment of the painting is that you can see all of his years of sacrifice for his nine children, all of the struggle, all of the love he has for music and literature.

three brothers

Three Brothers, 12" x 8", oil on linen

A while ago, I was looking to buy a Christmas present for my brother.  He was living out of state, and so I wanted to find him a Christmas present that would remind him of home.  I decided to paint him something.  But what to paint...

I sat in the window of a warm pub in Islip on Christmas Eve, sipping a pint of Guinness, stumped by the question of what to paint.  Then I realized, I could do a triple portrait.  I asked the bartender, Lanny, if I could buy three glasses off of him- a Guinness glass, a whiskey glass, and a Stella Artois glass.  He asked me what in the world I wanted them for.  I told him, and he gave them to me for free.

Three hours later, I had this triple portrait of me and my two brothers, as seen by our respective drinks.  I intended to bring the painting to a higher level of finish, but my brother preferred the brushiness.  So, there was his Christmas present.

I've been asked by a few people if I could give them rights to reproduce this painting.  They say it has a spontenaity and simplicity that gives it a wide market appeal.  It's funny to me that, after all those years studying Baroque elements of pictoral design, this is a design that captures attention.

opening night in new york city

Well, I'm not really in the habit of promoting myself, I just prefer to paint.  But every time that I go on Facebook or something, I see all these glamour shots of artists.  Artists with celebrities, artists in international cities, artists in international magazines...  So, I figure I'd just post some pictures of my opening at the Salmagundi last night, at the Junior Scholarship Members Exhibition.

I was really flattered to find that a lot of my favorite artists came to my opening.  I understand that it took a lot to cross continents, the River Styx, and what not, all just to come to my show.  It was really cool of them.  Here I am, in front of my painting, Murphy.


Today, I worked with another artist in the town of Riverhead, a town desperately trying to reinvent itself as an artistic hub, but is caught in the throes of recession.  I like the town, it is civilized enough to allow for ethnic foods and art studios, yet run down enough to be accessible and personable.  Riverhead is home to a very large hispanic community, many of whom are illegal immigrants.  By day, these men and women bike from Riverhead to the Hamptons, where they work long hours at jobs ranging from construction to kitchen work.  When I worked in construction, I would be around these guys often, and although I am hesitant to make a generalization, I could say that I never met one of these guys that I didn't like.  They were hard workers, never complained, and were often in higher spirits than anyone else.  There's just some unspoken bond between Irish- American bluecollars, and illegal immigrants- even if they don't all get along, they understand what it is to work with your hands.  Frank McCourt's book, 'Tis, paints the best picture of this world.

The problem I had today is that my fellow artist and I didn't have a model.  We knew that there were lots of these hispanic workers, waiting on the street corners for some employment.  Earlier that morning, when I grabbed a coffee, a pain shot through me to see these guys waiting on the sidewalk in the cold, hoping that some builder might come pick them up for a day's work in construction.  My friend asked one of these guys if they'd be willing to pose for a portrait, and he quickly agreed.

Juan entered the studio, clearly happy to have found such simple employment.  After a few minutes, he and I began talking about the studio, about painting, and about his life.  He was from Guatemala, had been here for years, and worked day and night at anything he could put his hands to.  Problem was, lately there's been no work.  He's had nothing to do, and it was killing him to be idle.  I couldn't imagine his pain- I've gone crazy in the past, when I've had to sit around idle.  When I worked construction I was making great money spackling, until I hurt my hand.  It was an injury which, the doctors told me, would prevent me from ever working construction again.  I was devastated, I had no other way of making money.  It took me a long time to find my way, and fortunately I had my family and friends who helped me along.  But what about Juan?  His face seemed pained, lost.

I suppose I could continue to write for the next hour.  I don't pretend to know Juan, I don't understand his world, but his face was enough for me, a painter of portraits.  Though this drawing was rapidly sketched without any time for polish, I don't really mind the lack of finish.  I know the painting that this drawing has birthed in my mind, and I'm up writing this blog because I'm wide awake tonight, thinking about this painting.

Juan, pencil on paper, 18" x 24"

painting in the snow

I woke up this morning to find that we had gotten an inch or so of snowfall.  Whenever it snows, I find myself drawn to do an outdoor painting.  A foot of snow would have been nice, but the dusting of snow has something nice about it as well- there's more of a dialogue between the long grass and the snow.

My wife was eager to get out of the house, and so was my son Liam.  So, the three of us headed to an old mansion near my house.  As I set up my easel, my son pelted me with snowballs.

It was cold out there.  Very cold.  My fingers became dimwitted and lethargic, and took a few seconds to respond to my commands.  My toes became absolutely frozen- should have worn thick socks.  But, it was the nicest day of painting that I have had in a long time.  It was absolutely silent, save for the sound of my wife and son as they played in the snow.  There were a remarkable number of birds for such a frigid day.  A winter landscape is austere for some, but in a sense, I've found this time of year to be my favorite.  The air is crisp, the woods are quiet, and the branches are beautifully silhouetted against the grey sky.  When you paint outdoors in winter, you can understand the whispered restraint and subtle harmony of Vivaldi's Winter movement of the Four Seasons.

The canvas is pretty wide, about three feet, and so I'll be working on it a few more times.  My final verdict on the painting was that I liked the direction it was going in, though the problem was that I hadn't seen the forest for the trees.  I had a lot of detail, but I was failing to grasp the overall sense.  And so, I took out a five inch wide brush, and wiped the canvas left to right.  This kept all the masses intact, and knocked out the detail.  I would have resumed painting, but I have to catch a train into the city in a few minutes.

Margaret took a photo of Liam as he walked down a wide path.  You'll see the photo here.  It's a beautiful composition, and I think I might do two paintings tomorrow.  In the morning, I will paint the very same composition that my wife photographed, and afterwards resume my panoramic painting.  I'll dress warmer this time.

flexibility in oil painting

Murphy, in progress, detail

I've been loquacious lately- I'll let this post be short and simple.  The first photo was taken about one hour into painting, as Murphy's hand rested on the table.  I came back to the painting five days later, and found that this position was too unnatural.  So, the second photo is that of the new pose.  How was the hand removed and then repositioned on the canvas?  Steel wool and turpentine, some heavy scrubbing, and then repainting.  Two hours after scrubbing, I had his hand roughed in as it held the glass.  The next day, I spent time refining the hand and glass.

This is a reason why I love the medium of oil on linen- it is so flexible, and responds so well to the slightest impulse.

The opening reception for my five new paintings will be on January the 14th, 7 p.m., at the Salmagundi Club on Fifth Ave.  I will be featuring five new works, alongside a dozen other Junior Scholarship prize winners from past years.

Murphy, 55" x 55" (cropped image), oil on linen

the birds

I've been a bit ambivalent, in this blog, as to whether I should share the whole story of my art career- the bad with the good.  I wouldn't want to weigh my readers down, but I do feel that while it's difficult to be altogether honest, it's also the only substance I can offer.  And so, I'll share my thoughts today.

My wife's car gave up the ghost a few weeks ago, and has been quietly decomposing in the driveway until we can get the Chrysler to an automotive necromancer that might be able to call it back from the underworld.

We've been rolling around town in my pickup truck, baby in tow, happy as can be in the holiday season.  All the while, I've been painting constantly, finishing up the five works I will be showing at the Salmagundi Club in Manhattan.  The drop off date is tomorrow, Sunday.  And so, I've been looking forward to packing my truck with paintings- one of them is seven feet tall, and so my truck is perfect.  I even had the truck completely looked over by a mechanic, so as to be sure that nothing would go wrong- oil changed, fluids checked, wiper blades replaced.

But as we sat in the truck, the truck suddenly had a burst of something resembling vehicular seizures, followed by a fainting spell.  So there we sat in the truck, silently wondering which person in our lives was pricking a voodoo vehicle with pins.  Hours later, the tow truck arrived.  At the mechanic's, I was frustrated to hear that it could not be even addressed until Monday- the day after the art drop off.

I made my way across town, face being lashed by winter wind and small pieces of airborne rock salt.  What a day.  My face red, my hands raw, I entered my house and threw myself down on the couch.  I sullenly looked out the window.

There is a boxwood bush outside of my window, an unruly tangle of branches that resists all disciplinary efforts of my pruners.  Today though, I beheld a sight as meaningful as Moses' bush in the desert.  On this bush's branches were dozens of robins, maybe even scores.  They were so densely packed that it was difficult to see the green leaves that they hopped around on.  I watched the robins, redbreasts silhouetted against the colorless winter sky, gorging themselves on black boxwood berries.  And suddenly, as clear as day, I remembered how Jesus said to the weary crowd:  "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life...  Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?"  The robins ate to their hearts content, all the while conversing back and forth like happy, noisy kids in a school cafeteria.

When news spread that my second vehicle had broken down, my phone began to ring.  My friends and family offered to loan me a wide range of SUV's, family vans, a Jeep, a truck, several different work vans...  I now have so many options, I can choose which model, year, and color vehicle I want to drive.  Off I go tomorrow, to bring my paintings to NYC.