Tag Archives: Art

The Expatriate Painter

African Delta 1964

People who have visited our home over the years have witnessed every available wall space filled with artwork.  When questioned, we have to admit that most of it is mine.

I began painting in oils spontaneously as a teenager, and I loved the French Impressionists.  In three trips to Europe beginning in 1958, I was drawn to the art collections of the major museums in Amsterdam, Paris, London, Milan, Vienna, Copenhagen, and Stockholm.

In Sweden and Denmark as a postgraduate Bauhaus Situationiste fellow, I lived in the home of writer and artist Jorgen Nash whose brother, famed Danish abstractionist Asger Jorn, maintained a summer studio.  It was in that studio that I renewed my drive to create visual arts.  My artwork came to the attention of the leading modern art critic in Denmark—Jens Jorgen Thorsen—who encouraged me to work fulltime in oils, inks, and watercolors in preparation for a public gallery exhibition.

Space Place 1964

By 1964, I was getting a lot of media attention, and my paintings were purchased by two museums and by a Swedish Countess.  I found myself in association with some of the most important European fine artists who had founded the historic COBRA and Situationiste Internationale art movements.  These avant-garde movements were protests against the practice of establishment academies dictating what was and was not fine art.  Artists who were non-conformists were thus excluded from the commercial art world.  With no formal academic art degrees, I, too, was assumed to be a protest artist.  My sudden fame in Scandinavia, however, came to an abrupt end when I was drafted into the US Army.

Man Bearing His World 1964

Out of the Army and home in Virginia, I had a one-man exhibition of my abstract paintings in 1967; but married and with a child on the way, I had to devote myself to magazine journalism to make a living.  Then, after a 40-year hiatus, I started painting again.

Woodland Levels 2007

At first, the work resembled my European influences, but soon I was experimenting with new styles and materials.  My Woodhaven Series of 2007, for example, is very naturalistic in its use of construction board and color patterning.  The primary objective in these initial paintings was to see if I could restore a sense of movement and depth to a flat surface, the qualities that had first attracted critics and buyers to my artwork.

Other new works demonstrated a Native American influence by the use of leather, feathers, and beads.

False Faces 2007

The Yellow Circle Series of five paintings took a full year to complete because of their complex geometric designs.

Yellow Circle Series

Yellow Circle Series 2010

Raging Comet 2011

An experiment involving night sky paintings with wooden relief “moon” discs led to another series in 2010-2011.

Oceanic Moon 2011

Boone Moon 2011

My art studio consists of a garage and a covered deck space where I work outdoors weather permitting.  I have also done a few assemblage sculptures that have been positioned in our woods.  Every summer I encourage our grandchildren to come for brief instructions followed by days free to use my paints, brushes, and pallet knives on canvas and wood surfaces.  Their home bedrooms are now decorated by my work as well as their own.  Some pieces we do together.

Although we do not sell the artwork created in the mid-1960s, more than a dozen paintings of the new era have gone to private collectors in the Washington, DC, Chicago, and Knoxville areas.

Passing Planets 2012

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Working from Old Letters

The young artist in Sweden at age 22. Photo by Toni Ottosson

From the time I was sixteen years old and went to sea as a third cook on a Norwegian coal freighter, I have written journals, saved letters, and tried to recover the letters that I sent during my post graduate years in Europe and my Vietnam War-era years in the army.  Over a period of nearly fifty years, the six-foot deep file of letters, notebooks, and journals has been preserved for a writer’s day of reckoning.  In November 2011, the reckoning began as the basis for my 21st novel.

My first intention was to write an epistolary autobiography.  The rare genre had appeal, but the materials—even at a random sampling—proved to be both incomplete and unbridgeable due to surprising gaps in memory.  For example, there were individuals mentioned in the letters who were total strangers in the recall department.  A few of them were women I had evidently loved.  Then, too, as a well-meaning literary friend pointed out, I was not well known enough to merit interest in my autobiography.

The solution between desire and practicality was to use the most dramatic periods in my young adulthood as background for a coming-of-age-as-an-artist novel.  And right away, I realized that there would be a narrator as biographer and a subject character that would stand in for my alter ego, and somewhere in the telling of a fictional story, the one would become obsessed with the ghost of the other.  The working title thus became:  Portrait of the Artist‘s Ghost.

I must warn you that reading your own letters and journals, written mostly in your early twenties, is a humbling experience.  Then, as a novelist, you must make editorial decisions about what to use and what to discard as non-essential to the structure of the novel and its fictional plot.  As it turns out, the glue of the novel is not the story that you tell in your personal letters and journals but the fiction that you invent to make it compelling.  This kind of literary insight probably comes only with maturity.

But if I am to be a candid mentor, I have to urge you to keep personal journals of significant events and to write letters to individuals who will correspond with you in important ways.  Save every outward expression of your inner life and document your activities, attitudes, and relationships as thoughtfully as you are able.  Think of your posterity and how your life will be rendered as a creative person.  You are the documentarian of your generation, and your acceptance of this responsibility is evidenced by every word that you use and every word that you leave behind.

If you are indeed a writer, you must write with intent and purpose nearly every day of your life.

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