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Something Else Happens

something else
People often ask me about my work methods, how I get the paint to do certain things. I just smile and admit that I really have no idea. I start off with a plan every time and I try to follow it, but just as Picasso says “then it becomes something else.”

For many years I fought this phenomenon. But it always happened. The thing is, I usually ended up with a painting that I liked, but I was somehow not proud of it. I guess because it had not turned out as I had originally intended. For me that felt like failure. How could I call what I had talent if I was not completely in control of it. But then as time went by and I looked at the body of my work I realized that I had developed a style and more importantly, I loved it. I found my voice. But truthfully I would have never developed my own style if the “something else” hadn’t continued to happen.

I guess making plans in painting and in life is pointless on some level. My life got so much easier as a painter and as a person when I began to embrace the fact that nothing was ever going to go exactly as intended. Don’t get me wrong, to this day I can’t begin a painting if I don’t have a plan in my head. It’s just that now am not troubled if the end result has little to do with that plan. The same is true in life. I think it is a pretty good idea to have a path – set some goals. But the end results will be much more about how you are able to recognize the opportunities that came your way and not overlooking something beautiful just because it was not exactly what you were planning on. That’s where the magic happens.

Think how boring your life would be if you only ever got what you expected. Remember this, any plan that you can make is always going to have limits, but that “something else” could be anything.

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Agree to Disagree

Please don’t agree with me – at least not right off the bat. I want to be argued with a little first. It’s really the only way I can be certain that someone is really listening to what I am trying to say. Complete agreement is the death of good conversation. I want you to explain to me why you hated the movie that I loved. I want to know if you actually think Donald Trump is an honest man. I want the chance to relate to you just what it is that excites me about a certain painting you find boring. The world is a wonderful place and I definitely have opinions and ideas about it (Vincent says I like to pontificate), but I value and get just as excited by hearing someone else’s thoughts as I do in spouting off mine.

Frank discussions, debate, and even arguing keep our minds agile, keep our relationships from getting stagnated, keep us from bottling up resentments, make us thoughtful citizens, and even help us to have peace of mind. I think if you can’t have a good knock down drag out fight with a friend, and get right over it, then that person probably was not that great of a friend to begin with. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my politics or my religion (I don’t like to talk about money because I simply find it a boring subject) so I am not going to take it personally if we don’t see eye to eye.

I had a woman unfriend me on Facebook the other day because I disagreed with her on the physical practicality of building a 2000 mile wall between the U.S. and Mexico. She thought that I had insulted her when really all I did was disagree with her. People… that is not the same thing.

So go ahead, challenge my ideas – maybe you are right and I will learn something. Or just maybe by we can both grow into better people.

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I was the youngest kid on the street where I grew up. Because of that, I often didn’t get to have a lot of say in the games we played or the general shenanigans we got up to. This changed as I got a little older, but when I was actually physically smaller than the other children, I often could not compete or keep up with the older kids.

It was at this time that I discovered “magic.” Let me give you an example of what I mean: if all the other kids beat me in a race I simply informed them that I had actually won because I was magic and had made it to the finish line first. They just didn’t see it because again – I was magic. I guess I became sort of a pain in the ass at that time because if anything didn’t go my way, I tried to change the outcome or the rules in general with my claim that I was magic.

Oddly enough this little coping mechanism actually helped me for a while. It helped me feel like I didn’t always come in last, that I could throw the ball just as far as the others, or that I was able to climb just as high in the tree. Of course these victories were all in my head, but even so they somehow mattered.

I have never forgotten my magic. I think that it gave me a love of reading and imagination and being creative. And on some level I have never grown out of it. In my forties I stood in lines at midnight to get the latest Harry Potter books. I have read Lord of the Rings more than 20 times (how many more I refuse to admit). I watch any movie with a dragon in it or where swords and sandals feature heavily. My nerdy love for these magical books and movies is compounded by the true magic – the creativity and imagination of the folks that produced them. My awe of their ability to create and transport us to other worlds only grows as the years pass.

I guess all that magic is how I ended up an artist.

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People are so touchy.

At a recent social event, I was chatting with a youngish woman whom I had just met. We were engaged in a pleasant little conversation, laughing, and having a generally good time when the subject came around to her work schedule, about which she began to complain, saying it often caused her to have to work very late hours. When I asked her what her job was, she replied only that she “worked in hotels.” Well that set up was too good to pass up. So I simply responded… “prostitute?”

And can you believe it? She got really offended. I tried to laugh it off as the obvious joke I meant it to be. But she was clearly not amused and stormed off. Well, I guess it was bad judgment on my part. I forget that I do have a twisted sense of humor. I am also not easily offended to the point that I forget that other folks quite often can be.

I regularly say things that cause folks to give me funny looks. I just can’t help it. If it comes into my head – it generally comes out of my mouth, especially if I think it’s funny. Mind you, I don’t really care if whoever might be listening thinks it’s funny. I am one of those awful clods who laughs at his own jokes.

Later that evening, at the same event, a rather elderly gentleman was receiving an award. The old gentleman gave a beautiful acceptance speech that had the entire crowd in tears. It was, however, a rather lengthy speech, and at the end of it I turned to the lady next to me and said (again completely as a joke) “I thought he would never shut up.” The woman gave me a funny smile, so I took it farther and added that “it was a good thing the gentleman ended his speech as it was beginning to cut into what time he had left on earth.” The slight smile disappeared and she made her excuses and walked away – I offended another one. Of course, I think as it turned out she might have been his daughter. But still?…. Come on?…No?…

Oh well, I thought it was funny.

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Old Movies

oldmoviesI always tell people that I try to make my paintings look like a memory. I like things a little vague, a little fuzzy around the edges. Maybe that is why I have always been drawn to old movies. The graininess, the shadows, that mid-Atlantic accent – I’ve loved them since childhood.

I remember when I was about 9 years old I spent a weekend with my grandmother. At that time the local television station had just started to play “all night movies” on Saturday nights starting at 10pm. Being my grandmother and not my mother she said that we could stay up and watch the first one, but then we had to go to bed. Well, after about 30 minutes into the first movie Mamaw was falling asleep on the couch. She said she would let me finish watching the movie by myself because she just had to go to bed. She trusted me to turn off the TV and go to bed as soon as the first one was over. That was the first time I ever stayed up all night. I watched all the movies and when the sky started to get grey through the window, I went outside and watched the sun come up.

I was so happy. The Marx Brothers, Myrna Loy, William Powell, and Ruby Keeler had worked a spell on me. I have been hooked ever since.

My love for these old films has only grown and has also inspired my work as an artist. The way they preserve a moment, a voice, a look… and it’s all simply done with light and shadows – just like painting.

I have always hoped that some of my paintings might be able to capture moments in that ethereal way. That they could be a little cloudy window someone could peek through and maybe end up getting a glimpse of something beautiful.

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inspirationIf you are an artist of any kind, the first thing you have to do it is get inspired. But I think that is true for everyone. Something has to motivate you to get up and face your existence every morning. For some it might be having money and the lifestyle that goes with it, while some people just want to take care of their family. Others want to serve humanity, yet some just want to serve themselves. Being inspired can be the difference between a great piece of art and a sofa painting, but it can also be the difference between a fulfilling career and a workaday job. It can make a marriage happy – or not. It can make you healthy. It can make you learn. It can make you sing. Being inspired by something can turn a prison into a possibility.

I get inspired by the world around me. I try to understand it, but I also revel in the fact that I will never know everything about it. Of course art has always been a part of the search for the answers to life’s big questions. But for me, it’s the simple things that drive my work. The color of a robin’s egg can give me enough inspiration for an entire series of paintings. I tend to leave ideas like the meaning of life to those with loftier expectations. Though I guess it all amounts to the same in the end. After all, when you get right down to it, isn’t the color of a robin’s egg as big a mystery as anything else?

Of course there are times when nothing seems new or interesting. I putter around and accomplish nothing. Again, I am certain that this is a part of life we all go through. You don’t have to be an artist to be uninspired. And I overcome this the same way everyone else does – I just keep going, I keep looking. Sooner or later I see a cloud, or an odd shaped tree, or a pebble on the ground and “click” – I get an idea and the world of possibilities opens up again.

What inspires you? It can be a tricky thing to ask yourself. I’m sure that many a good shrink have labored in vain to get their patients to answer that question honestly.

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Art Advice: Stuck with it

stuckI have been interviewed several times regarding design advice over the past few weeks. When the interviews got published, they resulted in a few emails, so I thought I would use the blog to answer a few of them from time to time.

First up: the lady writes…

“I don’t know how I managed to do it but over the years I have ended up with a lot of art pieces that I don’t really like. Some of them are gifts from family and some I bought myself. But now I wonder what was I thinking? Some were quite expensive. Any suggestions?”

The lady who wrote this actually ended up hiring me to come have a look at her collection to see what could be done with it. But I hear this so much that I thought it worth a comment in case others might have the same issue.

First of all, art should not be burden to you. It should be enjoyed. So, if you don’t like it, either store it (properly) or get rid of it. But before you do, there are a few things you can try that could completely change your mind about those pieces. You might just learn to love them.

1. Grouping
Try hanging them in groupings with other art. Often paintings are not strong enough to carry a wall by themselves. But grouping it with other art, and using it as more of an accent piece can produce marvelous results.

2. Framing
I cannot tell you the number of times I have seen beautiful art made ugly by being placed in the wrong frame. And on the flip side, I have seen the right framing elevate what had seemed some fairly atrocious artwork into something very usable.

3. Doing the unexpected
Do you have a portrait of some old battle axe aunt that you don’t know what to do with? Hang her over the bar. Squeeze that large abstract into your tiny powder room. Or hang the period landscape with the gilded frame in the mud room. Interesting choices are what make interesting rooms.

If none of this works – by all means, don’t hang on to something that makes you unhappy.

Being cheap, being too polite, being impatient can take their toll over the years, landing you with a lot of stuff that you don’t want – not just art. I can help you out with the art, but husbands, ungrateful children, and bad haircuts you have to work out for yourself.

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The Party’s Over… for Now

mardi-grasWhen you live in New Orleans, Lent is that brief period when people try to sober up between Mardi Gras and JazzFest. Like most New Orleanians, I need Lent.

For most of America the holiday season starts with Thanksgiving and ends with the new year. Bitch, please. Our holiday season… well, I don’t know when it starts exactly. With so many fall festivals and events that take place as early as September, then Halloween and Voodoo Fest… The party just keeps escalating until eventually you get to the more well-known biggies like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. But while the rest of the country is prostrate with exhaustion from those festivities, we are just getting started. The good times just keep rolling. The parties get boozier, the food keeps getting better, traffic and business grind to a halt, people get dressed up – as anything you could imagine, beads get thrown, people get bruised and fall on uneven sidewalks, and the good mood is contagious. Whew!

And remember – this doesn’t include one’s own personal celebrations like birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, fundraisers, and such. I sometimes wonder how anyone in this city has any money or is able to hold down a job.

I can’t tell you when the party starts but I can tell you when it ends. Lent. Everyone finally just stops, crawls into bed and braces themselves for work the next day.

Lent is when I detox, de-carb, attempt to get some exercise and try to put in a full work week. My friend says that there are three stages of being drunk: 1. You think you can dance. 2. You think you can sing 3. You think you are invisible. Lent is when you realize you are visible again. So it’s time for the gym, for organic food and some early nights. The warm weather is coming and that is a whole other kind of party. We gotta rest up.

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one-of-these-thingsOld people from Mississippi tell the best stories. As I am not long away from being one myself, I will tell one that was told to me when I was about 20.

This old man told me how he loved birds. And that when he retired he went about making his yard a haven for them. He put up all sorts of bird feeders and bird baths. He even planted special plants and flowers to attract the birds. Sure enough all this worked and he was able to spend hours sitting on his back porch with binoculars watching the birds. He had a couple of friends who would come visit in order to enjoy them as well.

He was completely happy with his birds. But then he began to notice that squirrels were getting into the bird feeders and eating a good bit of the bird seed he was buying. They also spread the seeds all over his lawn causing “weeds” to sprout up. He became obsessed with finding a way to stop the squirrels from costing him time and money.

He bought special bird feeders that guaranteed no squirrels could steal his birdseed. But they didn’t work. He worried about it all the time. He would make squirrel traps. He would sit on his back porch with a 22 and shoot them, hoping to keep others frightened away. Nothing worked. He became grumpy and complained about them to anyone who would listen. Constantly he sought advice from others about his squirrel problem. His friends stopped coming by. He was broke from his anti squirrel schemes.

Finally, in disgust, he took down all his bird feeders. A couple of months later he was sitting on his back porch, alone, no birds, no friends. But he was saving money and had a beautiful lawn.

It wasn’t long before he put the bird feeders back up. He realized that even though he hated the thought of the squirrels stealing his birdseed from time to time. It was better than not having the birds. He even noticed that sometimes the seeds the squirrels knocked about on his lawn produced pretty flowers. He was less grumpy and his friends started coming back around.

He said to me “In life there’s always gonna be squirrels, just feed the birds anyway.”

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Unyielding Good Taste

good-tasteEveryone thinks they have it. Most do not.

As an artist I try to be opened minded about the aesthetics of other people. I try to understand the look they are going for when someone paints their front door metallic gold, has a round bed, or places a life size reproduction of the Venus de Milo next to the BBQ grill in their backyard. Unfortunately, having an open mind can only go so far.

Yes, bad taste is out there in full force. In fact we are almost constantly being assaulted with it. We have an all-you-can-eat, gold lame, fake boob, strip mall, cubic zirconia, acid-washed kinda world pushed in our face most of the time.

However, to me, the only thing worse than bad taste is actually good taste – just in the wrong hands. It’s wonderful when someone can recognize the beauty of an eighteenth century French chateau. But trying to make your brand new house look exactly like one is just wrong. Isn’t there something slightly ridiculous about having a monogram on your rubber boots? Do antique Italian olive jars (no matter how beautiful they are) really belong on the porch of your Arts and Crafts style bungalow?

I find that often people who have no taste use the elements of what is accepted as “good taste” as a sort of mask to hide behind. Their outfits and homes always perfectly put together in the most utterly conventional way because they have no style of their own. To me this is the ultimate in boring. Am I the only one who thinks that a home that is merely pretty is almost ugly? Having a pretty home is easy. Buying a pretty dress is no problem. Finding a haircut that suits you and sticking with it for 5 or 10 years is not all that complicated. But I salute those folks who take chances and paint rooms the wrong color. The ladies and gentlemen who are not afraid to make a mistake with their wardrobe make me smile. And Bravo to you if every once in awhile your friends have to ask you “What in the hell did you do to your hair?”

For me a little bit of good taste goes a long way. Overdo it and you risk banality.

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One of These Things

black-sheepDue to a spiny cockleburr that got lodged in the mouth of a friend’s dog, I recently found myself driving down some pitch-black country roads in the middle of the night while trying to locate the only emergency vet willing to help us at such a late hour. Of course this couldn’t have happened while we were in New Orleans where scores of emergency vets are rubbing their hands together eagerly waiting to charge $500 for just such a visit. Oh well, the details of how I ended up in what felt like a real life version of the Blair Witch Project are not important.

But there I was driving down these deserted gravel backroads occasionally passing old, dimly lit country houses. I kept expecting to see Boo Radley in my headlights. Sometimes a pair of eyes reflected back at me from the bushes. An opossum? Who knows? The point is I felt like such a stranger, like I was in a private world where even the trees we drove past were asking “Who are they?” I have to say it gave me the creeps.

When we eventually arrived at the old barn that was the vet’s office and which only Mr. Edgar Allen Poe could have described with any justice. I was thoroughly apprehensive. But of course, we opened the door to find a state of the art clinic with a perfectly lovely country vet who fixed the dog right up.

Driving back I felt a little sad realizing that I was now a sort of foreigner in what was exactly the kind of place in which I was raised. I began to remember riding in pickup trucks down just such roads on just such nights, smelling the honeysuckle and getting sleepy. I thought about how I used to be able to walk barefooted down a gravel road and feel no pain. I used to wade through ditches and fields without worries of spiders or snakes to pick bunches of Black-eyed Susans for my grandmother. I would eat radishes right out of the ground or fruit right off the trees without washing them. I have no memories of wearing mosquito repellent or band-aids on my cuts.

But I have not lived in that world for a long time now. I get little glimpses of it when I walk on the pea gravel paths in my garden or when hear cicadas buzzing in the late afternoons. I mainly go there now in my paintings and there I don’t feel like a stranger.

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nosyShould I call myself nosy or be kind and say curious?

Either way, I have always been preoccupied with the way other people live. Oh not in that Gladys Kravitz busybody kind of way, just in how people function I guess. I don’t really care if my neighbor is sleeping with her gardener, but I am deeply interested in why she loves petunias. Whenever I am invited to someone’s home for the first time, I can hardly carry on a conversation because of the inner dialogue I am having with myself. “What – no books? I wonder if she doesn’t read or just uses an IPad?” “Do they really hang out on this uncomfortable sofa? There must be a private sitting room somewhere…”

I blame my uncle. He had an auction business and I worked for him as my first job. Often we used to sell out estates of people who had died. And sometimes we would be the first people to enter the house after the death. So the house was just as the person had left it. It may sound odd but found this to be a very personal and special thing to get to do – to sift through what someone had left behind.

I always looked for clues about the kind of people they must have been. Were they lonely? Were they loved? They actually bought and ate oatmeal (my mother didn’t make oatmeal), so what did they know that she didn’t? All those pajamas, they looked like they were actually worn – everyone I knew just slept in their underwear. An old compass on the nightstand, why? (And that is not pulled from Out of Africa, I found that once). Sometimes old ladies who had crocheted or knitted would have piles of hideous examples of their handiwork stuffed in closets and drawers, and I often wondered if all that knitting served any purpose other than keeping the knitter busy. These early glimpses into the lives of strangers changed the way I looked at other people – made me wonder.

The sad part is how the things that I’m sure were most valuable to the dearly departed person were the very things that were of no value to anyone else, the things we threw out – old letters, inscribed photographs, yellowed ticket stubs, worn pet collars, locks of hair, useless baby things in houses where no baby had lived in decades, recipes on worn index cards, datebooks…

I enjoyed that job but it left me forever interested in what I call “the archeology of everyday people.” Why do they prefer tea to coffee? Why did they press that flower in a book? Did that cracked old saucer belong to their grandmother, or is it just junk?

The truth is, these little things are really the most private and personal things in a person’s life and are absolutely not my business.

So I guess I am nosy.

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The Death of Southern Cooking?

southern-cookingWhen I was a child I was always fascinated by watching my grandmother cook. Without a recipe, she would throw together the most delicious southern meals. It was such an art. To me it was like magic and I always wanted to be able to do it myself.

Well life is funny, I can say now, at 50 years old, that I can cook like that. I’d put my fried chicken up against any southern church lady’s. My biscuits are better than my grandmother’s and when it comes to cornbread, cakes, pies, collard greens, green tomatoes, and all the rest of it, I can throw down with the best of them. The problem is, now that I can do it, nobody wants to eat that kind of food anymore – not even me. Of course once in a blue moon is ok, but if I cooked like that on a regular basis I’d weigh 500 pounds. I can’t get anybody else to eat it either – except maybe for a treat twice a year. It was hardly worth learning.

It also serves as a constant temptation. I have to watch my weight, and that is hard to do when I know how easy it is to make a pan of homemade biscuits and how good they would taste with some honey butter.

I find all this to be proof of a higher power. Somebody up there is screwing with us. Why is it that ice cream doesn’t raise your metabolism and cause you to lose weight? Why doesn’t sausage gravy help keep your arteries clear? In a completely random world, wouldn’t at least one food that is good for you taste as good as french fries cooked in duck fat? How come a cigarette doesn’t add 15 minutes to your life? Couldn’t taking a 20 minute nap every day ensure that you have six pack abs? Cake couldn’t be doctor prescribed?

I guess southern food was intended for people who worked in the fields and needed the calories. They needed energy to do all that hard work and get paid. Now we pay people to make us work hard to burn off our extra energy.

Couldn’t the Creator have made it so that working out caused you to get fat? Nope that would be too easy. Again, we used to have to eat heartily to give us the energy we needed to work hard. Now we have to work hard to burn off the food we heartily eat. Like I said, somebody up there is screwing with us!

Anyway, I guess cracklin’ bread and fried apple pies are headed for the scrap heap. Have people today ever heard of eating raw mustard greens with streak o’ lean? Tasted sorghum molasses? Had a tea cake? I doubt it. I wonder how many people still know how to make chicken and dumplings from scratch?

I do… but nobody wants it.

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Too Polite

A few weeks ago I was having some soreness in my neck and shoulders, so I made an appointment to get a massage. Before the massage started, the masseur told me to let him know if anything he did caused me any pain. Well, while the guy was working on my sore shoulder it was quite painful. But for some reason I didn’t want to complain. After I flinched several times, the masseur stopped the massage and told me to sit up. He looked me in the face and said “Are you really so concerned with being polite and not hurting my feelings that you are willing to lie here and let me hurt you, rather than just saying ‘please stop that hurts’?” I realized at once that he was right. Why was I so afraid of complaining or of offending this guy – who I barely knew and who I was paying – that I was willing to endure actual physical pain?

This got me thinking about other situations in my life where I opt for “pain” in order to keep up my idea of good manners.

If you go to dinner at someone’s house and they serve a dish you hate, do you choke it down with a fake smile or do you ask for an alternative? If someone from work gives you an ugly sweater in the secret Santa gift exchange, do you keep it? Do you even go so far as to wearing it to work so that the giver can see you in it? Would it kill you to say I’m sorry I will never wear this and I hate for you to waste your money, could I return it for you? Do you endure 10 minutes of irritation while trying to politely get off the phone with a telemarketer or do you say “bitch please” and hang up on them? And why do I always try to pretend to the person that called me at 5:30 in the morning that “No no, you didn’t wake me up”? Have you ever sat through a movie you hate rather than walking out just because you don’t want to disturb those around you?

Have any of the following statements fallen off your perjurious lips:

  • “How nice we love Merlot”
  • “I’m in no hurry you go first”
  • “No, I do like this hair color it was just what I wanted”
  • “We love having ________come over. She’s such a well behaved child”
  • “You take the last one I’m not hungry”
  • “Isn’t it my turn to pick up the check”
  • “That was good for me”

If you relate to most of this, you are obviously either from the South, too afraid to hurt someone’s feelings, or worst case scenario – both. Don’t get me wrong, I would not want to live in a world where people didn’t try to be nice to one another. But as I get older I think maybe letting go of a little of my “fear of offending” baggage might be a liberating thing.

So until next time “fuck off”….just kidding, sorry, and please don’t tell my mother I said that.

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A rose is a rose is a… yeah, yeah, yeah

whats-in-a-nameWhen I stand back and look at a painting that I have just finished, three things go through my mind: #1 relief, #2 gratitude, #3 dread of having to come up with a name for it.

I would prefer not to name any of them. Unfortunately, I have to because well…I have to. Not only because people prefer it, but because I need to have a point of reference for inventory and such. I guess I could just number them, but again – people like them named.

So I am forced to come up with something. Once I thought about giving them people names, like this painting is Gerald and this one is Tina, but when I mentioned the idea to Vincent he rolled his eyes SO HARD that I knew immediately it was a bad idea. Then I thought about the names they give perfumes like Obsession or Eternity and tried to think how I could adapt that to my paintings. I guess a painting named Infinity might be thought provoking, but I find these kinds of names burden a painting by forcing the viewer to try to find “infinity” in a simple landscape. That just gives me a headache. Not to mention the pile of pretentiousness it dumps on my shoulders.

I always feel sorry for those folks who have to name the paint colors for Benjamin Moore. How many names can you come up with for green? Wouldn’t it be funny if they threw out trying to make the color names sound appealing and just named them what the colors looked like? Color #2786: Mud, color #1253: Greasy Paper Towel (an off-white), or color #7869: Urine.

Luckily, since I choose pretty subjects, I don’t have to avoid using names like Garbage Dump or Oil Refinery. In the end, I usually just stick to basic descriptive names that relate to the work itself, like Autumn Pasture. This kind of name is simple and lovely, but can get a bit repetitive – hence my struggles.

It is one of those problems in life that I will probably never solve, but am indeed lucky to have.

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There is an old adage that many doctors are taught in med school. It goes something like this: If you hear the sound of hooves clattering on the pavement in central park, chances are that it is a horse and not a zebra. The implication being that most things are what they appear to be. For med students this means don’t try to turn a simple cold into radiation poisoning.

But let’s forget medical school. I think that everyone needs a good dose of this lesson. In fact, given the ridiculous things I hear people say on a daily basis, I think we should have T-shirts made.

I heard a man say that if we allow gay marriage, the next thing would be that we had to allow people to marry Chimpanzees. Chimpanzees? Really? That is the next step? Are there a lot of human/chimp couples out there that I just haven’t met yet? “Have you met my girlfriend Cheetah?”

Someone else remarked that mass shootings were the result of mental illness. Which I partially agreed with until the lady informed me that mental illness was usually the result of government mind control drugs… because of course that is the only possible conclusion.

Another time it was the weather. One guy said there was no way that the weather could ever be affected by things like pollution, that more than likely Obama was controlling the weather in order to control the world. Because that seemed so much more reasonable than any old greenhouse gas theory. It is scary that I am not making this up.

I saw a lady pounding down a Big Mac and a gigantic soda. She was also extremely overweight, as was the other lady who was with her. “I probably should have gotten a milkshake” she said to the other. “I don’t think this Coke is good for my teeth, I been having toothaches. And I hear that diet soda is actually what makes you fat.” ….. There is so much wrong in this scenario, I don’t even know where to start. And yes, she was being serious.

I think the temptation to complicate things comes from the fact that it is often hard to face the simple truths about ourselves. “I couldn’t be fat because I eat too much and don’t exercise. It must be something else.” “The boss yells at me because he doesn’t like me. It can’t be just because I’m always late.” “I don’t want minorities to take over our country but I’m not a racist.”

It is an idiotic way to avoid things we don’t want (or are too afraid) to deal with ourselves. Let’s face it, is so much easier NOT to take any action – especially if you fool yourself into believing that the solution to a problem is far more complicated than it really is. Thank God I never do it.

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Recently I have been asked by quite a few people to do interviews about my art. I always do it of course, and usually it is a positive experience. I also never talk about these interviews before they are published.

However, I am going to break that rule to talk about a phone interview I did with an extremely sweet young woman. Bless her heart. She was a young journalist trying to pitch a series of “profiles of southern artists” to a national magazine.

Sweet as she was, I knew this interview was not going to go well with her first question: “What are some of the more exotic places you have traveled to in order to find inspiration for your work?” I laughed when she said it – which I think confused her a bit. I explained to her that most of my inspiration came from the countryside in Mississippi where I grew up. I could hear a note of disappointment in her voice.

She quickly moved on to her next question: “I understand you have sold pieces to celebrities and sports figures. Is that exciting for you?” Again my response failed to impress. “Well yes, but they just buy things from me, it’s not like we hang out or anything. Actually, I still get excited every time I sell a painting no matter who buys it.” She was starting to get annoyed. She asked me many more questions, searching for something glamorous about me. Part of me wanted to try to exaggerate things, paint myself with a little more color, but that is just not me.

I have been very fortunate in my life to go to some pretty fancy places, to meet and know some very fancy people, and let’s just say I don’t really freak out anymore if someone serves me a $190 bottle of wine (though, I would still freak out if I had to pay for it). I also like having beautiful things around me in my home. All that being said, I wouldn’t call myself a fancy person, and I think those who know me would agree.

Finally, out of what must have been sheer desperation, she said me “New Orleans is such a great food town with fabulous restaurants. I’ll bet you’ve had some great dining experiences.” “I have,” I replied. Then she asked “What is your favorite food?” When I told her that if I was being honest that my favorite food was purple hull peas and cornbread, I could tell the interview was over.

I doubt you will ever see it in print.

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What Do You See?

There are many things in life that we learn – some of those things are great truths and some are rather mundane. Not going to see an Adam Sandler movie is something I have learned that would be an example of a mundane truth. The greater truths can come to us in an epiphany or can take years to fully understand.

Well, as young artist I had an epiphany that has also taken me years to fully understand. One of the first times I sold a piece of art, the lady who bought it kept telling me about all the wonderful things she saw in it. But most of what she said she saw had nothing whatsoever to do with my intentions or ideas in making the painting. And that was when I had the epiphany – that the meaning of a piece of art is established by the viewer, not the artist.

This bothered me at first. I wanted to control what people saw in my work. I did not like the idea that someone saw a giant dog in the clouds of one of my paintings. I did not want to hear someone say “This landscape reminds me of a forgotten battlefield.” I wanted everyone to see only what I meant for them to see. I thought that if people didn’t get the exact emotion out of the painting that I was trying to put into it then I had failed somehow.

As I have grown older and my ego has grown smaller, I can now see how much better it is to let people bring their own experiences into things. Their fears, their happiness, their fondest memories… these things can make my paintings far more meaningful than I could ever hope make them on my own. Now, in fact, I love it when someone tells me that one of my paintings makes them think of some personal experience or emotion that has nothing to do with what I was thinking of when I made it. For me this is what gives the painting a life of it’s own, a life outside the limits of my experience.

I guess a good piece of art is like a mirror – in that every person who looks into it is going to see something different.

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The Journey or the Destination?

journeyMaybe you have to be old to be familiar with the Mary Tyler Moore Show. But for my ego’s sake let’s pretend you don’t, and that everyone is familiar with Mary and Rhoda.

Mary had it all together and Rhoda was sort of a screw up. Mary got the princes. Rhoda got the losers. Funny enough though, people loved Rhoda and they eventually gave her a show of her own. The set up for Rhoda’s new show was that she finally met Mr. Right, got married, and moved to New York.

Here was Rhoda, married to a great guy and happy – but people hated it. Viewers missed seeing Rhoda struggle – so much so that they had to write her husband and her happiness right out of the show. Rhoda went back in search of a decent guy and her ratings went up. Poor Rhoda was doomed to bad dates and job insecurity in order to entertain us.

Is the struggle always best part? And isn’t seeing people fall in love more interesting than seeing people who are already in love? Who wants to see a married couple cooing and mooning over each other? That would not only be boring, it would be nauseating. There is a reason fairy tales end when the good life begins. Nobody wants to see Cinderella laying around the castle eating grapes and getting her nails done. We sympathize with a hopeful housemaid but have no interest in a contented princess.

Could it all boil down to one simple truth about ourselves? Maybe having something to strive for is what really makes us happy. And maybe the anticipation of reaching our goals is just as important as actually achieving them. It was certainly the case for Rhoda.

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perfectionI have a strange storehouse of trivia in my head. Some of it I know to be true and some I’m not so sure about. But I believe this is true: if the ancient Persians created anything like a vase or a piece of jewelry, they always included a flaw in the design in order to keep the gods happy. Because apparently their gods did not want anything man-made to be perfect – to compete with the work of the gods. I could google this to be sure, but it’s a story I like, so I’ll just keep believing it.

I have to say I agree with the gods – nothing man-made should be perfect. My reasons have nothing to do with religion. I just find perfection to be, well, boring. Haven’t you ever walked into a house that was perfectly clean, where everything was in its exact place and felt it to be cold and sterile. Have you ever seen a movie or read a book where everything came together, every question answered, every mystery solved and thought to yourself “Ho Hum.” If someone were to make a patchwork quilt and sewed everything together with a machine, so that every stitch was even and every line was perfectly spaced, it would have no charm whatsoever.

I really don’t mind seeing the little imperfections in things. A brush hair left behind on a painting tickles me. Moreover, I see the flaws in the people around me and somehow it makes me love them more. And when I see them in myself they keep me grounded and remind me to be humble.

I know there are some insanely type A personalities out there who would strongly disagree with me. They struggle to have a perfect home, a perfect marriage, perfect children. In my mind they are setting themselves up for failure, disappointment, and frustration, not just for themselves but for everyone around them. Even worse, suppose they were somehow successful in making everything perfect – how boring their lives would be. I’d kill myself. I especially wouldn’t want a mate who was “perfect”… imagine no bickering, no challenges….just complete matrimonial harmony. It makes me want to vomit just thinking about it.

I’m not saying that I don’t try to make my art as fine and well finished as I can. In fact I work very hard at it, but a little flaw here and there makes a painting “human” which pleases the gods. At least that is what I choose to believe.

And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t strive for excellence in your life, just don’t work so hard trying make everything in your life the way you think it should be, that you overlook the beauty in the way that it is. I learned this from painting.

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Peanuts-schadenfreudeWebster’s dictionary says that schadenfreude is “a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people.”

I suppose it is natural on some level, something we picked up as children. When we saw the bully on the playground get his ass kicked. Or when the prettiest girl in class walked in with a gigantic pimple on her face. Sometimes it was even worth losing a ball game if it meant that Joe Cool Super Athlete struck out. I personally smiled when little miss know-it-all raised her hand one too many times and got the answer wrong… Oh wait, that was me – well never mind about that, you get the point. Though it doesn’t say much for us as a species, sometimes we humans get a little kick out of seeing someone else fail.

It can be especially satisfying when bad things happen to bad people. To hear of a bank robber who accidently shot his penis off when he stuck his gun in his pants makes everybody giggle. We can find the idea of a rapist ending up as the sweetheart of his cell block amusingly appropriate. And my personal favorite is when “family values” politicians get caught with their pants down – literally.

But unbelievably it can also apply to the people we really love. I’m happy when Vincent cooks for me, but I’m even happier if his cooking is not as good as mine. And likewise I’m certain that he just loves the fact that if I tried to do my own income taxes I would wind up in jail. My mother and father loved to fish. I will never forget the smirk of satisfaction on my mother’s face one time when my dad caught a particularly large fish only to accidentally drop it off the boat moments later.

In some ways I guess all this makes humans seem rather sinister. But I think the real pleasure doesn’t come from seeing another person’s pain, it comes from seeing another person “being human” – making the same mistakes, facing the same struggles, having the same heartaches, the same defeats, the same disappointments, that we all face. It reminds us that even the prettiest girl can gain 20 pounds or that the star athlete can fall on his ass – just like the rest of us. It lets us love them a little more for their humanity and forgive ourselves a little more for our own.

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A Flair for the Dramatic

From a very early age I was drawn to and fascinated by “the dramatic.” Even as a young child, I loved scenes in old movies where people were overcome with emotion. At 9 years old I secretly hoped one of my school friends would faint out on the playground, just so I could finally say – as I had heard so many characters in black and white film say – “Quick, get her a glass of sherry!” But alas, no one ever fainted, and I’m fairly certain that there has never been any sherry in Tupelo, Mississippi anyway.

And though I often get very emotional, I have never actually fainted either. One time, in a London museum, I got fairly overcome while viewing Van Gogh’s self portrait and I had to sit down, but that is about as close as I’ve ever been to collapsing. I have had several friends tell me that they did actually faint upon seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time. I was very freaked out when I saw her, I remember my hands trembling, but didn’t feel at all faint. So again – no sherry.

Being overcome with emotion seems to be going out of style. I think people with strong emotions tend to medicate themselves these days – more’s the pity. I don’t mind occasionally seeing someone having a little meltdown at the supermarket. I think it’s healthy (within reason). A little offstage drama is a necessary part of life. As long as it is an honest reaction to a real situation and not just bullshit.

On the flip side, I can’t be around people who turn EVERYTHING into a crisis. That’s just petty.

Real, everyday drama, like tearing up over a commercial, getting into a fight with a tangled up garden hose, witnessing a car accident, being disappointed over a love affair, or being deliriously happy over the fact that those biscuits you just made taste just like the ones your grandmother used to make… these are the moments that truly teach us to be patient, to be caring, to be thankful, to be considerate, to forgive.

We are all just trying to get by the best we know how.

So if you want to have a little fit, or need to smash a whole set of dishes – go ahead! I won’t judge. I could even offer you a cold compress… or a hand fan… or a glass of sherry.

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Collecting Dust

I can remember the first piece of original art I ever owned. I was in my early teens and one of my friends was taking a drawing course in school. She showed me a pencil drawing that she had done of – all things – death. It was the classic figure of the hooded skeleton with the sickle. It wasn’t so much that I loved the image itself. But I remember being captivated by the pencil work, the shading, and the look of the graphite on the paper. When I admired it, she offered it to me as a gift, and from then on I was hooked – not only on art in general but on owning original pieces.

Once you cross that line of having original art rather than prints and reproductions on your walls, you can never go back. And the nice thing is that there are all kinds of original affordable art pieces out there. Some of my favorite pieces in my collection are just simple student works that artistically are not all that outstanding, and that I bought for next to nothing. They just spoke to me for some reason. Art is personal that way. If I am going to hang something on my walls and have to look at it every day, I want it to mean something to me. Of course, a good collection like this can take a lifetime. But what a joy to walk through rooms full of meaning and memories rather than rooms full of stuff.

Many times people have hired me to help buy art for their homes. And while I point them and prod them, I never choose for them. They often say “which do you think is the prettiest?” or “which one works better?” and I always say “Pick the one that reaches out to you, and you can’t go wrong.” Art doesn’t have to match the drapes of course. But I’ll bet you this, if the art matches you it will match with your home automatically.

My biggest piece of advice on collecting art is to DO IT and to start early.

There is a big difference between owning a collection of art and owning things that merely collect dust…

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Making an Exhibition of Myself

If you hang your art on the walls of a gallery, you’d better be sure you have a thick skin. Especially if you decide to stick around and hear what folks have to say about it.

By far and away most people are overly generous in their compliments (which I don’t put much stock in), and there are a few that are just plain vicious with their comments (those I ignore as just being assholes). But the comments that really can make my blood curdle are the ones that some folks offhandedly make from time to time, that seem on the surface to be quite benign, but can be daggers in the ears of the person who made the art.

A few examples:

About a particularly misty landscape: “how do you get that blurry effect? do you not wear your glasses when you paint it?”

About a particularly dark abstract: “he must have been depressed when he painted that one”

The unavoidable: “your work reminds me of __________________ “ (fill in the blank with any other artist’s name)

Upon wanting a piece that has already sold: “Can you make me another one of these?”

My all-time favorite happened to me a few years ago when a lady brought her 7 year old son with her to an opening night exhibition of some abstract work that I had recently done. The lady was making a purchase when her son looked up at her and said at the top of his lungs in the middle of the crowded gallery, “You’re gonna buy that!!! I could make one of those for you in five minutes!”

There was kind of a hush over the room for about a second and I said just as loudly, “You’re hired!” then under my breath, but just as loudly to the mother, “Now get him out of here” which had the whole gallery laughing.

I love my work, otherwise I couldn’t make it for a living. So I am confident about the work that I put out. But hanging your art is really like standing in the middle of a room absolutely naked and inviting people scrutinize and talk about your body. Exposing your art is exposing yourself.

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Years ago, Vincent told me that in France there was a saying: “Never two without three.” Now, many years later, when I am tying up the garbage bags, I have to make three knots. I have to add three dashes of salt to the pot. Or I have to kiss the dog three times on the head. It’s a sickness.

I am so susceptible to superstition. If a black cat crosses my path I make the sign of the cross. That might not seem too bad – except that I am not Catholic. I love peacock feathers but can’t have any in my house because when I was a child my grandmother told me real ones were bad luck. If I make a positive statement like “I’ve never had a cavity” I have to “touch wood” right away so as not to jinx myself (I actually had to touch my wooden night stand after typing “I have never had a cavity” just now). So you can see it’s bad.

A few years ago I found a small sculpture on the side of the road – apparently someone moving had no place for it and threw it out. It had a primitive look and I liked it; so I brought it home. It wasn’t long before I had second thoughts and felt it was really an eyesore. However, for some reason I got it in my head that it would be bad luck to throw it away. So I put it in the closet where it was constantly in the way. Finally, Vincent asked me one day “what in the hell is this ugly thing?” I told him the story of finding it and feeling like it would be bad luck to throw it away. He looked at me for one second picked up the figurine and walked outside with it. I followed saying “Don’t throw it away. I’ll find a place for it.” To which Vincent replied “Oh I’m not going to throw it away.” Then he proceeded to repeatedly bash the thing against the concrete steps with all his might until at last the sculpture was in a thousand pieces. Then he looked at me, smiled, and said “Still think it’s bad luck to throw it away?”

The whole thing caught me off guard and sent me into a fit of laughter. But more importantly, it really did feel great to see him beating the poor thing against the ground. It was freeing. Vincent’s total lack of hesitation in smashing that stupid piece of junk immediately made me realize how ridiculous I was being.

Though it by no means cured me of my superstitious nature, that incident is a constant reminder not to let myself get caught up in self-made stress and worry. I had turned a piece of trash into a problem. Now, I always try to remember that sometimes nothing feels better than to just say “fuck that piece of junk” and bash it to bits. And “junk” = anything you want it to be.

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Bad Romance

I hate Valentines Day.

I wonder sometimes if I am one of the few people who doesn’t get “romance” or if I’m one of the few who does.

I hate heart shaped boxes of chocolates, heart shaped beds, heart shaped jacuzzis – well anything heart shaped really. All I would be able to think about if I walked in my bedroom and saw rose petals strewn on the floor would be that I was going to have to clean them up later – and that possibly Vincent might need a CAT scan.

I love a bottle of good champagne but I don’t really associate it with tender feelings. A single red rose just makes me wonder where the hell the other eleven roses are. A room filled with lighted candles would just make me nervous. And who came up with that whole simultaneous massage thing? What a terrible idea. Spending time together by paying someone else to rub your partner just seems lazy to me.

All this being said I love romantics gestures. But what I think is romantic may not cut it for other people.

First off, I don’t think you can plan sex. You are just setting yourself up for failure. Good sex is always accidental.

And then the gestures that really make my heart feel loved are really just simple:

When I’m brought a cup of tea in bed first thing in the morning.
When someone half asleep rolls over in the night and wakes up just long enough to give you a quick peck on the cheek then falls immediately back into snoring.
When someone checks the air pressure in your tires.
When someone really laughs at your jokes.
When someone fixes your crooked collar, or makes you “change that ugly tie.”
When someone will answer the question “what is this thing on my back?”
When someone takes the dogs out so you can sleep longer.
When someone says I’m sorry.

But the most romantic thing to me is to look over and see that same person who was there yesterday choosing to spend another day of their life with you – having the same arguments, listening to the same old stories, watching things droop and sag – and smiling at each other for no apparent reason.

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LOL But Not at a Funeral

charlie-chaplinLast week I had the great pleasure of having an old friend stop by the gallery. I had not seen her in over 20 years. She was always one of those rare friends – if you have ever been lucky enough to have one, you will immediately know what I mean – with which I share an almost supernatural chemistry of laughter. A chemistry, I might add, that is more often than not COMPLETELY INAPPROPRIATE.

Seeing her made me think about laughter and what people find funny. And I have to admit upon self examination, that I must be a little warped in the sense of humor department.

I think of all the times I’ve had to walk out of church services and funerals. I think about all the evil stares I got on the subway in New York. When a little old lady lost her grip on the strap, fell to the floor, and slid halfway down the train, other passengers ran to her aid while I sat unable to move because I was doubled over in laughter. Oh the looks of disgust that were leveled at me that time. I even got nasty comments. But the more they commented and looked, the more I laughed. Am I evil for that? But hey – to this day I still think it was funny. It’s not like she broke her neck.

Often in movies I laugh when no one else is laughing and don’t laugh when everybody else does. What is that about? At 50 years old, are those South Park boys still supposed to crack me up? Is the movie The Exorcist meant to be funny? Am I the only one who laughs when Linda Blair pees on the floor?

Once when my mother was visiting, while she and I were standing in the kitchen, a glass shade from a hanging light fixture came loose and fell on her head, shattering into a million pieces. It actually made her cry – not the pain of the light fixture, but that instead of being concerned I got tickled and could not stop laughing. The more she cried, the more I wanted to laugh.

Where does humor come from? Why is it that for me – Laurel and Hardy: funny, Three Stooges: not – when for others it is just the opposite? What do Madeline Kahn, Carol Burnett, Cartman, and Zero Mostel all have in common that sends me into stitches?

Anyway, feel free to laugh at me if I slip on a banana peel. I’ll leave you with a scene from Strangers On A Train. Is it supposed to be as funny as I think it is?

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Nothing for Christmas

santaSometimes I think I associate getting gifts with approval and affection. When I was growing up, we were not rich people. My parents worked hard and worked a lot. So, often because they were too tired or too busy, I sort of got paid off with a hug and a five dollar bill – rather than them actually being able to spend time with me. That’s one theory

Another theory is that I am greedy and selfish. Why? Because I LOVE to get gifts, and especially at Christmas. For me, a bad gift is still better than no gift. I’m like a child. I always hear other folks saying things like “you don’t have to get me anything” …and I want to be like that. I’ve even said it before. But the truth is, I don’t really mean it. I want the damn gift.

It makes me feel so great when someone hands me something wrapped in pretty paper and ribbons and says “this is for you.” It feels like love to me.

I know, I know….”it’s not the gift – it’s the thought that counts.” I’m good with that. I don’t expect jewelry. But if it’s the thought that counts, no gift means no thought, right? I’m even good with a re-gift. A box of corporate chocolates is still a box of chocolates.

But seriously, the thing that really blows my mind is the simple fact of just how lucky I am. I am nearly 50 years old and in all my life I have never NOT gotten a Christmas present. Hell, a Christmas present…I’ve never not gotten several.

So many people in this world go without basic necessities and I get excited about a scented candle. The gifts you get are humbling. The gifts you get call on you to be generous. The gifts you get remind you to care about others. Most of all I guess, to me the gifts I get remind me of all the wonderful people I have in my life, and those I was blessed to have had.

Merry, Merry Christmas to anybody that reads this.

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The Ceramic Work of Kevin Gillentine

kevin-gillentine-gallery-pottery (8)I am a painter and designer by profession and I often have people say to me “You are so lucky, I also paint and wish I could do it full time.” I think they romanticize a full time painting career as somehow not being work. But let me tell you – aside from the rewards, it has all the deadline pressure, frustrations, tedium, burnout, and headaches that come with any job.

I think, in some ways, those folks who paint as a hobby don’t realize how nice it is to keep their painting as a refuge, as something especially personal and private that can be a creative outlet without having the pressures of professionalism.

Don’t get me wrong – I am thankful everyday for my life as a painter. I just need to use other genres of art to give my mind a break from painting sometimes. Over the past few years I have been dabbling in ceramics. Though I do not consider myself a professional potter, I am proud of the work that I turn out. I have even featured some of my work at my gallery in a strictly informal sense. Because even though I do sell my pieces, I do not want to turn my hobby into a profession. I mostly sell them because a) I am so often asked to by friends and clients and b) what else can I do with all of it?

On that note, I have decided to start having an annual Christmas pottery event at my gallery. Starting next Saturday, December 6th I will dedicate one of my front gallery rooms to showing and selling my ceramic work. So please come by and have a look if you get a chance. These are one-of-a-kind, affordable pieces that would make excellent holiday gifts. So come have a look.

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Thankful When It’s Over

fired-turkeyIn life, some events are so hyped, so idealized, that they never live up the the expectations surrounding them. I have always found this to be especially true when it comes to Thanksgiving Day.

We have all seen the Norman Rockwell painting of the idyllic Thanksgiving family dinner. Martha Stewart has done everything she can to get us to make handmade place cards, to create elaborate cornucopia centerpieces, and to roast a 75 pound turkey to golden perfection.

All that is great, but the truth is, when I look back to the Thanksgiving Days I remember fondly, it is the ones that were complete disasters that I enjoyed the most. It was the one when the turkey ended up on the floor. Or the one when mom and dad got into fight and my mother opened a can of cranberry sauce, stuck a spoon in it, handed it to my father, and said “eat up.” Or the one when my aunt cooked her first turkey and forgot to take the bag of “extra parts” out before she cooked it, making the carving of the turkey more like an autopsy than a holiday ritual (my cousin puked). Those are the ones that we all look back on and smile about. The few that went according to plan are completely forgotten.

Giving thanks is a great idea, but Thanksgiving day is often the holiday where the daughters bring home blue haired boyfriends – and so do the sons. Small family squabbles turn into screaming matches. Wills get changed. Hair gets pulled. Divorces are contemplated. I think it’s all because people are trying so hard to live up to some kind of romanticized version of what they think the perfect family or family event is supposed to be, that they forget the truth.

Sorry Norman, but most families are just a mess. We are human – and humans don’t seem to like perfection very much.

I’m thankful for the failures. They taught me to roll with it. Turkey on the floor?… be thankful nobody saw it, wipe it off and move on. Daughter’s / son’s boyfriend got blue hair?… hug his neck and be thankful he brought a bottle of wine. Overly critical mother-in-law?… remind yourself of the ill-equipped nursing home you will stick her in one day… and be thankful.

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Dreaming of Julia Child

julia-childLast night I had a very bizarre dream involving, of all people, Julia Child? Here is the part I find both hilarious and also allegorical. In my dream Julia was still alive and much the same as I remember her from my childhood – yes, as a pre-teen, I watched Julia Child every Saturday afternoon – Shut up.

Anyway, in my dream Julia was having a press conference where she admitted to the world that she was actually from the backwoods of Tennessee, and then, instead of speaking in that unusual Julia Child accent we all know, she began to talk like a real, honest-to-goodness hillbilly. The press went wild and everyone was in shock. In my dream I was even calling Vincent over to see Julia making her big “coming out” speech. Julia went on to say that she had adopted her phony accent because she did not feel like people would accept her as a world class French chef if they knew where she was from and how she really talked.

When I woke up, I tried to analyze why I would have such a dream. Of course there were many parallels to my own life – being sort of a hick myself. I felt Julia’s pain.

I have known people who have tried to claim that their ancestors were royalty, gay men who have married women, poor couples who live beyond their means, men who wear toupees, women who wear fake breasts, womanizing preachers, career-oriented women who become housewives, child hating parents… there are even smart, tolerant, open-minded people who can sometimes allow themselves to become part of hateful, bigoted agendas and organizations. I think it is sad that we have all of these folks trying to be something that they are not, just in order to “fit in”… to feel good about themselves. I suppose we all do it on some level, but really, I say – Fuck That!

This is a problem that I truly hope future generations have less and less. Because even though there is nothing wrong with trying to learn to speak correctly, and sometimes in life you do have to put on a bit of a song and dance to get ahead, faking your way through life never seems to fool anybody.

I hope that in my dream Julia did what she did because of the times in which she lived. And that she was finally able to be herself because she believed that the world had become a better place. I hope so too. And yes, I really did have that dream – Shut up.

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The “Experience” of a Lifetime

asparagus-experience…or maybe just a lunchtime.

When I was young, when you wanted a cup of coffee it generally came out of one of those big stainless steel urns, or the teardrop shaped glass decanters associated with industrial coffee makers. You know – the type you still see in diners and truck stops. And when you stopped at a farmers market, it was actually just a farmer selling a bunch of vegetables out of the back of his truck for a very good price. Getting a haircut meant just that – getting a guy to quickly trim up your hair and buzz your neck, a very quick process that took about 10 minutes tops and did not involve washing your hair or the subsequent purchase of “product.”

Alas, I now no longer need either barber or “product.” My point though is that – for better or worse – American businesses have done a fantastic job of turning the purchase of ordinary goods and services into “AN EXPERIENCE.” And because they have done it so well, people don’t seem to mind paying a little extra for something once thought to be absolutely mundane (I personally blame the French). Now a cup of coffee has to be a “great” cup of coffee with whipped milk and seven extra shots of espresso and extra foam and a leaf drawn in caramel on top of the whole thing… for $27. The farmers market is more like a jewelry store, with carefully pre-washed, pre-shelled butter beans in a glass case with many folks stopping by to admire them – yet unable to afford a purchase.

I would be a hypocrite if I did not acknowledge that, on some level, we do the same thing in our gallery. And rightfully so. Buying a piece of art should be a meaningful experience. It will be a part of the character of your home. It should involve thought, inspiration, and even emotion. The one thing I believe that you never should encounter when making an art purchase is salesmanship. The art should always sell itself.

And when it comes to spending the extra money for all those sometimes ridiculous little touches retailers use to lure us in… I would also be a hypocrite if I didn’t say that I am the biggest sucker of them all. I just love to buy asparagus that is tied up in a gingham ribbon instead of a rubber band or pears wrapped in tissue paper. Buying homemade dog treats, selecting what fragrance I want for my artisan herbal hand soap, or unwrapping a folded white oxford shirt just back from the cleaners gives me a feeling of contentment and well-being that I call the Martha Stewart Effect. And I don’t really mind being bald, but I do miss buying “product.”

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halloweenI always get a little nostalgic around Halloween.

Up until I was 30 years old, I worked in New York City making costumes for a living. So every year around this time, when I see everyone so excited about getting “dressed up” and getting their costumes together, it takes me back to the days when costuming was such a big part of my life. I would have been fired from so many movies and shows if they had known how often I “borrowed” costumes to wear out for a night on the town.

One thing New York and New Orleans have in common is that people love to get dressed up. Having access to Broadway and movie caliber costumes meant it was fairly easy for me to get into any club. Nobody held the rope up when you walked in wearing a set of 10-foot articulating angel wings (thanks Angels in America), or an anatomically correct, full body wolf costume with coordinating motorcycle cap and jacket (thanks Stephen Sondheim).

It was difficult to navigate the subway sometimes, or walk the street in 9-inch platform shoes, or to get a cab to stop when you were dressed as a Disney villain. I remember having to ride in the front seat of the cab one time while my friend Jacques had to lie down across the back seat because his wig was too tall. I sort of remember spending New Year’s Eve at the Roxy dressed as – well I am not actually sure what it was – but it was big and flashy and earned me a great place on the dance floor because it poked a lot of people when they got too close.

Making my way home at the end of the night was just about the only downside. Stepping out of an after hours club into 8am rush hour traffic on Sixth Avenue dressed as some 7-foot (including heels) incarnation of Madonna with a crooked wig and smeared makeup can be quite a jolt. My favorite thing about that – just like in New Orleans – was that no one thought a thing of it. Just another day in the Big Apple/Easy.

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A Fresh Perspective

different-perspectiveThere is a movie where a teacher suddenly climbs to stand on top of his desk during a lecture to his students. When asked why he did it, (I may be paraphrasing here) he told his students he wanted to see them from a different angle. I love the idea behind this.

In life, it is all too easy get stagnated ideas about people, about your job, about politics… well, about everything really. Often we sum people up within minutes of meeting them, and then stubbornly hold on to our misconceptions, no matter how often we are proven wrong.

For some reason, having an open mind can scare people to death. Instead of looking to the world around them for answers and understanding, some people only look for things that will back up their own preconceived notions. It’s like with the Bible: most folks don’t read the Bible to find out what to believe – they search for out of context tidbits that they can twist around to back up beliefs – and sometimes prejudices – that they already have. And that can cause them to miss the whole point.

For an artist, trying to look at the world around you in a fresh way every day is the only way to do good work. Stagnation is the death of art. This is not to say that you can’t have a consistent style or consistent ideas, but you need to make sure you are constantly trying to grow. As you go through life, if the world around you, or your idea of God, or your understanding of people, seems to get smaller and more narrowly drawn, then I think you are doing something wrong.

I believe trying to make good art is very similar to trying to make a good life. And keeping a fresh perspective is a huge part of both those things. That’s why even though I have such a demand for my landscape art, I try to work in other genres on a regular basis. Painting abstracts and nudes, making pottery, even writing this blog, helps make all my work better.

So read a book that is about someone completely different than you. Watch a documentary film about a subject of which you know nothing. Be friends with people of all ages. Try to really understand people with whom you violently disagree – don’t just call them idiots. You don’t want to wake up one day and realize that it was you who was the idiot all along.

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Hear No Evil

hear no evilI know, I know, I know, it is such a small-minded, sneaky, and downright petty thing to do. But… Hello my name is Kevin, and I am addicted to eavesdropping.

I don’t know how I picked up such a lowdown habit. And what’s worse, I am talking about listening to conversations of people I don’t even know – in the checkout line, in the coffee shop, at the movie theatre, in the street… I am addicted. It’s so bad I even make notes about it sometimes. People just fascinate me.

Don’t get it twisted… I do not purposely try to overhear what people are trying to keep private. It is more a matter of not tuning out what folks are making no attempt to keep to themselves. Most of what folks say does fall into the category of useless drivel, because of course most of what goes on in our lives is only of interest to ourselves. But sometimes you can hear extraordinary things. You can also learn a lot.

For instance:

  • Cultural trivia – Did you know that “Leonardo DiCaprio painted the Mona Lisa”? And according to my source “that is lucky for him because the Mona Lisa is probably worth at least a million dollars now.”
  • Historical facts – I was not aware that Prince Charles’s mother, QEII, “defeated the Spanish Armada a few years back.”
  • Political news – thank God I overheard this woman warning her friend that “Obama was going to put all white Christians into concentration camps.” Otherwise I might have been caught off guard (note to self – change religions).

I am also constantly shocked about what people will talk about in public. The other day at the drugstore, the two ladies in front of me went into explicit detail about the reasons for their impending Preparation H purchases. Did they go hemorrhoid shopping together? Is that a new thing? You can hear about your neighbor’s sex lives, digestive problems, or money woes. You just have to not – not listen.

On a serious note, I will never forget that I first learned of the approach of Hurricane Katrina by overhearing a conversation. Yes, sometimes I hear things I wish I hadn’t. I have heard things that were sad, funny, scary, ridiculous, and even profound.

Why would anyone want to listen? For me…it keeps me on my toes. It reminds me why I need to vote. It reminds me that not everyone has had the same advantages as me. It keeps me humble. It reminds me of the importance of context. It makes me sympathetic. It makes me angry. It keeps me aware of the zeitgeist.

But most of all it reminds me TO KEEP MY FUCKING MOUTH SHUT – somebody might be listening.

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Opening Acts

eccentricLet me just say upfront that I love all of the openings we host at our gallery. I love the guests. I love the energy. And I love getting to hear people talk about art.

But by far my favorite opening event of the year is Art for Art’s Sake. Most of the time when you host an art exhibition you feel a little bit like you are on stage for the evening – it’s even worse when the exhibition is of your art. I love it, but it can be a bit serious and sometimes a bit stressful. That’s why Art for Art’s Sake is so much fun. It’s the one opening of the year when I can relax and enjoy the party… and the people-watching.

Let’s face it, when you have an evening that draws thousands people and you give away free wine, you are bound to attract a few “characters.” And I’ve seen my share over the years. I once found a woman wandering around the gallery with her arms outstretched trying to sense the spirits of the paintings. One self described “freelance chiropractor” insisted on trying to give me an adjustment over a bench in the middle of the crowded gallery. Then there was the amateur flamenco dancer who started an impromptu performance and nearly shook all the paintings off the walls before I could stop her. I’ve even had to put out a small fire caused by someone who thought every candle I have for sale should be lit.

And then you would be surprised by the way wine can inspire art appreciation. I’ve had so many people end up in tears over how much the art (and the wine) had “moved” them. One of my guest artists told me about watching a woman looking very closely at one of his paintings. She had a very strange look on her face and seemed to be about to speak. As he started to approach her to ask what she thought of his work, she sneezed on his painting and walked away.

Lastly, I have to pay homage to one of my perennial favorites, the poor young woman who over-indulged, with her dress hiked up in the back, her hair disheveled, and her heel broken. I always see her as we are locking up at the end of the night as she tries to navigate her way home down our uneven New Orleans sidewalks (but girl, I’ve been there too).

The folks in New Orleans are the best art patrons in the world, and the few oddities only add to my appreciation of the whole experience. I can’t tell you how much I love being a part of it – probably because I fit right in.

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The Penis Panic

kevin-gillentine-artWhen I was in my twenties, and weighed 150 pounds, I went to a beach in France and got a sunburn on my ass. Many people in France go nude at the beach and so I thought “why not?” Being from a small town in Mississippi I had never been “exposed” to such an open and natural attitude towards nudity. I mean, the folks down at the Baptist church just didn’t spend weekends naked at the Sardis reservoir and spillway. Too bad for them. I did not by any means become a nudist because of that experience, but I remember it as a comment on the ridiculousness that can often surround the subject of nudity.

Having these hangups in daily life is one thing, but when it comes to freaking out about nudity in art, I lose patience. And nothing causes more swooning, more immature giggling, more righteous indignation, more blushing, more self consciousness, more complaining, and more noses out of joint than a male nude with an exposed penis.

It’s 2014 and penises have been the subject of art since art existed. So what is it about male nudity in particular that still sets people off? It’s funny how many more people will accept complete female nudity – even to the point of virtual pornography – without batting an eye, but full frontal male exposure can often bring out almost violent reactions. And obviously that is part of the reason many artists include the penis in their work – because even after thousands of years of human culture, it still has shock value.

Some of you may think that I am exaggerating about this, but I have been in the art business for 25 years, and I can tell you that even in the most benign and universally respected artwork, the male genitalia can always cause a commotion. Once I had a man walk out of the gallery over an antique print of the statue of David. Really? And it’s not like the walls of our gallery are covered with naked men. I’m not a penis peddler. It’s just that in an art gallery they do tend to turn up now and then.

For me, painting a nude is all about the simple yet complex grace of the human form – how vulnerability, confidence, innocence, provocativeness, strength, and frailty all can be represented at the same time in a piece of art just by showing the nude human body. I have so much demand for landscapes that I don’t often get the chance to do nudes, but I’m planning to do a whole exhibition of them at some time in the near future – dicks included… and I can already hear the whispering.

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Art Imitates Life?

kevin-gillentine-art-imitates-lifeYesterday I heard a middle aged woman talking about how much better life was when she was a child. She kept talking about how she admired a certain politician whose platform was all about trying to make America the way it used to be. And I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t vote for him, he’s wasting his time.”

I remember once my mother saying (in a rather relieved tone of voice) to my grandmother, “I may be past forty, but I am still closer to forty than to fifty.” To which my grandmother replied “You are closer to seventy than you are to forty, because one day you might live to be seventy – but you will never be forty again.” That remark nearly landed my grandmother in the East Tupelo Home for the Aged. But what it lacked in sensitivity it made up for in wisdom.

Moving forward – that’s it. My hand at painting, my perceptions, my inspirations, are constantly changing. Trying to recreate a painting you did in the past is a disappointing process. You always have to work in the moment. I believe that is a life lesson as well. Trying to go back is a frustrating, and frankly useless endeavor.

So things used to be great for you in the past – that’s wonderful, cherish that memory, but move on. If you keep spending all your energy trying to recreate that “painting,” you will just be wasting the time that you should be using to make something new… and quite possibly even better than the original.

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Google “Gay Coveralls”

coverallsThere is nothing I love more than walking into my studio when I have a fresh new canvas and all my brushes are clean and arranged neatly in rows on my work table. At least I think I would love that ??? Unfortunately, I have never been what you would call a “tidy” person.

No matter how earnest my intentions, I always manage to make a mess. I cannot cook without using every pan in the kitchen. Gardening leaves me with more soil in my pockets than in the pots. One time, I got dressed up to meet a new client (I looked pretty together for me) then realized I needed a sketch from my studio to take to the meeting. I carefully walked into the studio, touching nothing, avoiding all wet paint, and walked out with my sketch. As I’m driving away from the meeting, feeling like I made a good impression, I look at myself in the rear view mirror and notice that I have phthalo blue paint smeared all over my face (no idea how)! I think it’s just me.

I once had a painter friend who worked in an art studio with me and would show up every morning in a white dress shirt and linen pants. He would roll up his sleeves, put on an apron, and work hard all day beside me. At the end of the day he would take off his apron, roll down his sleeves, and voila – spotless! I, on the other hand, would be paint-stained head to toe – somehow only my apron remaining clean.

brushesWhen I paint I use anything that I can grab. I use every brush in the place and often times have six or seven palettes covered with paint spread on my work table. People often ask if they can visit my studio and when I say no they think that I am being a mysterious artist. But the truth is… I’m just embarrassed by the mess.

Maybe I will have to become one of those old Southern men (just like my grandfather) who walks around in coveralls all day? I googled “gay coveralls” and the results were disturbing…

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You Gotta Have a Gimmick

gypsyI was asked to look at a couple of portfolios this week of artists who might be considered for shows in our gallery. I was impressed with one young man’s work in that it had a very unique style. It reminded me of an incident I had almost forgotten…

As a young man in New York I had the good fortune to be able to create artwork for some of the costumes used in the acclaimed revival of Gypsy starring Tyne Daly. One of the best things about that experience was all the free tickets and having the chance to see it multiple times. The “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” number stopped the show with every performance. I remember one night backstage during a rehearsal of that number, a savvy old theatre queen nudged me and pointed to the ladies singing that song and said “That’s good advice you know, listen to the words – they’re true.” I told him that I thought “you gotta get a gimmick” sounded kind of like a cheap way to go through life, but that I loved the song. He shook his head and said “No No No you’re looking at it all wrong. Having a gimmick just means being original, not being like the rest of the herd. You’ll get what I mean one day.”

I have thought about that conversation many times over the years and of course he was right. Successful people have all got a gimmick: for an artist, it might be cubism or a blue dog; for a singer, it can be the uniqueness of their voice; a great teacher has their own special rapport with their students; every memorable dancer articulates their body in a way that is their own. Even the guy who helps me with my roses has a special touch. And again the old queen was right. There is nothing cheap about putting yourself out there, making your work reflect who you are… no matter what kind of job you have. What’s your gimmick?

Video of the production I worked on is not to be found free on the internet so I’ll just show you the one from the original movie version. It always makes me smile.

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Does My Art Make You Mad?

I was talking with a young artist friend of mine the other day and he opined that if art doesn’t upset you, make you angry, scare you, challenge your beliefs, or make a political statement, that he wasn’t sure it should be called art. After he made the statement he sort of looked at me sheepishly and said “I don’t mean to offend you or say your are not a real artist.” I just laughed. Ah youth!

I do large scale landscapes. They are the opposite of upsetting (at least I hope so). I have always made my living as an “artist” but have never had much interest in upsetting people. You see, I have had issues with panic and anxiety since I was 6 years old. The last thing I am interested in is stress. I love that people send me emails about sitting down at the end of the day and having a peaceful moment with one of my paintings.

I recently read a biography of Norman Rockwell. Apparently he never considered himself an artist. He always called himself an illustrator. Am I an artist? I don’t know. I know that making art is humbling and that it wasn’t until much later in life that I truly understood what it meant say that someone was “gifted.” It is a GIFT to have the ability to create something that is truly your own. And it is an even greater gift to be able to make a living while doing it. People don’t earn artistic talent any more than they earn being beautiful or having brown eyes, or having a really big… well, you get the point. Again I say I don’t know if I am a real artist or not. I’m just thankful to be whatever I am.

kevin gillentine

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Making Art is Work!

Bare Branches

Bare Branches

As a person who has the privilege of making art for a living, I have to admit that I am often frustrated by questions about the time it takes to create a piece of art. I have always found this a difficult question to answer because of the various reactions I get from my questioners.

Some folks are only happy if you say that you labored over a piece and that it kept you up nights trying to think of ways to get it right. But sometimes a painting just flows out of you like lightning. I used to try to go into elaborate explanations of how much of the time I spend thinking about my work versus the time I stand there with my brush in hand. Then there is all the time I spend just looking at things, at trees, at light, at color. And then there are the landscapes in my mind that I try to translate.

The truth is, that as an artist everything in your life goes into creating your work… every experience you have had shapes how you view and interpret the world around you. So I guess my best answer these days is …“that painting took my whole life to make.”

kevin gillentine