Brief Musings on Fra Angelico

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Yesterday we were discussing the use of linear perspective in early Renaissance painting in class and speculating as to why Fra Angelico did multiple versions of his annunciation with the perspective in different places.
 
The version above was chosen by one of my students for analysis. She become stumped by the question, “what role does perspective play in telling this story.”
 
Before I could give my own take on it one student spoke so eloquently about how having the viewers perspective turned away from the primary subject of the scene created a tasteful sense of intimacy as if we are an onlookers passing and unwilling to interrupt. It is moments like these that I am proud of my students, when they see with empathy.
 
Where the eye does lead us is to what my mentor Stephen Brown would call a painting within a painting depicting the expulsion from Eden. The narrative tension created between the two scenes set against each other, one made the perspectival focal point, the other the focal point by color and scale and the tension that creates is subtle but moving.
 
Now this is totally subjective, I claim no authority, but to me it is as if we the viewer focus our eyes on distant tragedies, while a simple shift in gaze may reveal a closer redemption.

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The Entombment above is one of my all time favorite paintings. When discussing Fra Angelico with my friend the painter Brian Christie we realized that we had drawn the same conclusions regarding Fra Angelico’s powerful and unique use of black.

From Caravaggio to Manet black is used in western painting not as black but as a neutral cool color. Often it is a substitute for blue and because of simultaneous contrast works well. But in Fra Angelico’s black is not integrated into the palette mixing and harmonizing into the atmosphere of colors around it. It is a disturbance.

It is unquestionably opaque presence of death. The irritant in the pastoral. The mouth of the tomb expresses the content of grief without platitude in a way that is clear and sharp. It reminds me of a passage in Jonathan Safron Foer’s novel Here I Am in which a character reflects on the asteroid which killed the dinosaurs punching a hole in the atmosphere. From the ground this would have looked like a patch of night in the day, a hole in the world.

Fra Angelico’s work carries with it the kind of emotional rawness and awareness of mortality that was present in the works of the Gothic era which preceded it. I often go to the medieval section of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to renew myself in the presence of work that reflects a world aware of sickness and death. So it is no surprise to me that Fra Angelico seemed to have had reservations about linear perspective substituting spiritual space for illusionistic space. He used the new technology for a time but it did not stick or take on the kind of importance that you see in the work of his contemporaries.

He was a Renaissance painter who appreciated the simplicity and emotional clarity that came before. In a sense he is the antithesis of the Mannerists who came much later (although they too I feel get a bad reputation). It is easy given the accomplishments which followed him in the High Renaissance to overlook his work or to see him as a mere transitional figure to a more impressive age. But to do so would be to miss out on some profoundly felt works of art.

Again these are just musings, I am no art historian, I just love painting deeply.

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Mind, Body, Spirit: Remembrance of Bill Fisher

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I know a lot of people are very worried about me right now. I know a lot of people have been very worried about me for a very long time. I just want people to know that despite all the terrible things that happened in our lives, my father loved me so much, I loved him right back, and that love is still with me guiding me forward. As one friend said, “Bill slipped up, but Bill never gave up.” I am proud to call Bill Fisher my father, proud of his life and legacy, and like him I am resilient, and I am going to be okay. Better yet, I will thrive. I am so grateful for my wonderful family and friends. I will slip into terrible despair I know, but like my Dad I am going to keep getting back up, because that is who we are.

Below you will find the remembrance I gave at my father’s memorial service. I am posting it for those who were unable to be there for the service, and for those who were they but wish to go through it again. But before I do I just want to add a little more about my father.

The First Time I Saw My Father

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My mother tells me that when she told my father she was going to have his child she said that she would not come looking for him or his family unless I asked for him. When I was three, maybe four, I remember asking, “Why don’t I have a Dad?” and I didn’t know it at the time but my mother began searching. To her surprise he found us first. He had started looking for us as soon as I started asking for him. She described us as having some kind of mysterious connection pulling us together even though we had never seen one another.

Then one day my mother took to me McDonalds. I was eating french fries in a booth and across from me my mother sat to the left leaving a space for someone who had not yet arrived. I looked across the store to my right towards the registers and saw a man looking back at me. He stood maybe ten or fifteen feet away and began weeping. He then walked towards us, stood at the end of the table, and my mother said, “Miguel this is your Dad.” He knelt down towards me so we could see each other eye to eye, and then he sat across from me. I don’t remember what he said but I remember overwhelming joy. I remember how by the end of the conversation I knew I had met my best friend.

The Last Time I Saw My Father

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I had been waiting to hear from my Dad all morning. I was hoping he would invite me to work out at the downtown YMCA with him like we had discussed the day before. I called him up and he called me back a few minutes later. “Sorry I couldn’t get to the phone I am on my scooter.” I asked him to meet me for coffee at WPA. I had a free hour before Christine and I were to go to the Mozart Festival and wanted to spend a little time with him.

We were dogsitting Christine’s Boss’ dog Azmo or Azzi so I took Azzi along. Three blocks from WPA Azzi refused to walk lifting his paw to indicate injury so I carried the dog in my arms the rest of the way. My father was there waiting for me sitting outside in front of the cafe. “Who is this little guy?” he said as I approached. He played with Azzi, made a joke to a little girl whose dog was sniffing Azzi’s butt “I am so thankful we humans have better ways to say hello.” She cracked up laughing and I thought of how children love my dad. “I love Uncle Bill” my sister Kaya would say, “he is just another kid like me.”

I showed him a picture of my most recent drawing which he thought was “damn good.” He told me about his newest painting and how he was trying to express his last operation and time in the hospital. He was excited about having me come by to see the work. We talked about his friend Harold and he asked me if I would be interested in going to West Virginia with him to see him. My father missed Appalachia, he missed the landscape of his childhood. Then he asked me if we could get a hotel together at Virginia Beach and spend a weekend just the two of us. “I would love to do all that Dad, but just one day at a time, one day at a time.”

We had a falling out a few weeks earlier when he called me intoxicated at two in the morning and I put distance between us to protect myself from his destructive behavior. I said “Dad I love you and I am rooting for you but I can’t be with you.” I asked him not to come to my 30th birthday party which he had been so excited about, I told him I didn’t want the present he bought me. He was wounded but respected my decision and said “I do not blame you Miguel.” He told me that he wanted me to do what I had to do to take care of myself. I blocked him out of my life, I swore I had finally had enough, until I remembered him in the hospital, until I remembered holding his swollen hand, listening to him scream for hours, the fear in his eyes, his inability to understand, “I’m dying,” he said, “I’m dying.”

“I’m here Dad, it’s Miguel, can you hear me? can you see me? I love you, please come back, please come back, please come back, please come back…”

The memory broke my heart wide open.

And he was back, not perfect, but back, and that is why we were having coffee together that day. It was beautiful outside. It was perfect. When I got up to leave I turned and I said, “Dad I love you” and he said “I love you too.” I can still feel him putting his arms around me. And I watched him as he rode off down the street.

Later that day I told Christine that after years and years of struggle my father and I seemed to have finally made it to a place where we could share the best of ourselves without hurting one another. “Today was good, today was finally good.” I went to bed thinking this was the beginning of a new chapter in our lives, that the good would keep coming, that we were finally beating this monster that had stood between us for so long.

But the next morning my uncle Bernie called,

“Miguel, the police found your father’s body…”

Remembrance

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I only have the strength to get through this once, no re-writes, no edits, none of that. In true Bill Fisher style, I am going to wing it this evening and hope for the best. We all know that the addictions which tormented my dad finally took his life. We all know that we as a family did our best to help him, often making the wrong decisions, but doing what we felt we had to do out of love. We all know that there are a lot of wonderful people in this city who tried to help my dad. We all know there are a lot of predators in this city who exploited and used him. For nearly two thirds of my life this fight has taken the forefront. I watched my dad slowly disappear. It was excruciating to come home periodically, to find him less of himself every time, and I was so angry. I was angry at him, angry at Legends and Baja Bean for never failing to serve him, angry at the drug dealers who took our money, angry at the judges whose sentences only made life harder, angry at the cops who denied my dad human dignity and abused his body, angry at the jails which only made my dad’s self abuse increase, and angry at my dad for taking himself away from me. I wish now though, and perhaps this is more than any human can bear, but I wish I had spent less time angry, less time lamenting the parts of him I lost, and more time cherishing the parts of him that held in there, that kept fighting.

Of all the comments I got, the one that touched me in a way I was not anticipating was from a friend in the program who said, “I always saw him at my Wednesday meeting, he didn’t speak, but was always engaged.” After every relapse, and they were countless, my dad never gave up. He always told me, “Miguel you know my life does not have a happy ending,” but he didn’t give up no matter how bad he knew the ending would be. He kept pushing, making the time he was truly with us, in mind and body, as wonderful as he could. I so wanted to prove him wrong about the track our lives were on. I wanted him to be a grandfather, I wanted him to see my career blossom, I wanted him to die in the loving care of his family, not alone in some crack house. And when he died I knew, a nightmare I have been having for half my life had finally come true, only this time I won’t wake up in tears, gather myself, call him and ask him if he wants to meet me at the cafe for lunch. This time the nightmare isn’t ending. But with all this despair, which seems boundless, there is so much love and admiration. He fell, but he never gave up. The booze, the drugs, the dealers, they took his life, but they can’t take him, because he is with all of us now. Those who knew my dad were, like myself, waiting for this day decades ago. He stuck it out for so long. Yes he died and his death is a tragedy, but his life was a miracle, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

When I was five years old my dad took me to a cafe and we had our first philosophical conversation. Or at least the first that I can remember. He said to me, “How many legs does a stool need to stand up?” I thought about it and concluded that a stool with two legs would fall over so there had to be three or four legs. He agreed with me and then asked what was sturdier, a four legged stool, or a three legged stool. I don’t remember if I answered correctly but I do remember us coming to the conclusion that a four legged stool could have an uneven leg that causes the whole thing to wobble back and forth, but a three legged stool was solid and could not be shaken. He then continued that a good life was constructed like a stool, with three legs or foundations that had to be maintained in balance. One leg was the body, another was the mind, and the third was the spirit. “All good things in moderation” he told me, and would continue to tell me for years to come.

It wasn’t until years later that I was old enough to see how my dad struggled to maintain these three areas of his own life; body, mind, and spirit. And now that he has passed on it is all I can think about. So I will share with all of you my reflections and in doing so I hope to convey who my dad was to me.

 

The Body

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My dad was an athlete. That may sound odd to some of you who only knew him as a painter, but it is true. His love of exercise and physical challenge were as deep as his love for art and music. I am not talking about your average football fan sitting on the couch a couple times a week for passive entertainment. My dad loved sports with religious fervor. Engaging his body was an act of meditation.

When I was very young I remember watching my dad play basketball. I can still see the focus and intensity on his face. He told me he could never play above rim, but boy was he proud of his three point shot. His signature shot was to stand in the corner of the court facing the net at an angle that rendered the backboard useless. He would shoot with a quick and graceful arc, and swoosh, “nothing but net” he would say. I know he played on city courts in pickup games, often at Randolph, and later in life he would talk about how much he hated it when his teammates would say, “White boy’s gonna lose it for us.” He even wrote it in a painting but I am afraid he wiped it out for fear of offending people who didn’t understand the world he came up in. He just hated being doubted, and I am sure whenever people told him white boys couldn’t ball he played all the harder. One of my fondest memories was waking up in Blacksburg when I was four to find a poster of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Basketball team on my door. My dad immediately started naming off the players, “Let me tell you about Larry Bird.” I never took to basketball like he did, which didn’t stop him from signing me up as a kid, but I did often come with him to Ginter Park where he played once a week until his knees finally gave out on him.

But as intense as his love for basketball was, I think my dad will be best remembered as a swimmer. He loved swimming. He was amazing at it. He had this ability to pace himself for incredible distances. He would start off kind of slow, almost as if just warming up, but then he would just keep going, and going, and going, and before I knew it he would hop out and say, “wooo 36, that’s a mile, let’s hit the shower.” I bet if you timed lap 6, lap 16, and lap 36, you would find little fluctuation in his speed. He was a machine, precise and unrelenting. He called it an act of meditation, and would often talk about the peace that came over him when it was just him and the water. He always said that swimming was a pure sport, because in swimming unlike team sports the competition was always the self. I can hear him telling me at 13 when I swam for the Richmond Racers, “it isn’t about being the best, it is about doing your best.” Swimming gave my dad an opportunity to teach me that the slowest kid in the heat who gave it his all and came in last was a greater champion than the fastest kid who phoned it in.

The pool also brought him community. Even during the last week of his life he talked about how much he loved working as a lifeguard for the city of Richmond. He loved checking chlorine levels, telling crazy stories about the characters in the neighborhood, talked about how fun it was to throw birthday parties at the pool for kids. At a time when the city was deeply segregated and you would seldom see whites and blacks together, my dad would say, “I always knew I was safe, because at Randolph I didn’t have white friends, or black friends, I had real friends, and real friends have your back no matter what you look like.” He loved the kids too. Nothing brought him more joy than teaching children swimming lessons. He would always talk about one little boy in particular who loved my dad so much he asked, “Bill, will you be my daddy?” My dad always cried when he told me this story. He said “I’m sorry I can’t be your daddy but I promise to be your friend.” And whoever that little boy was, and wherever he might be today, I know my dad was still thinking about him right up until his final days.

A lot of you probably don’t know how many lives my father has saved. He had story after story about pulling out drowning children, CPR, pulling a teen out of the river. He never bragged, never thought much of it, just saw it as his responsibility as a lifeguard. But his rescuing didn’t end with his years as a lifeguard. Once I watched my dad save a man at the Outer Banks. He got sucked out by the rip tide and didn’t have the strength to make it back to shore. He waved his arms for help but his wife who was distracted mistook it for waving to say hello. By the time we all understood what was happening my dad was already running full speed down the beach boogie board in hand. He swam out, had the man hold on to the board, and pulled him back to safety. My dad would often say that the world would be better without him, and I would think of the lives he saved, the families whom he spared so much suffering, and wondered how he could ever feel that way.

Football was my Dad’s first love, and the Cowboys were his team. He loved talking about how his affinity for the Cowboys was purely aesthetic; as a little boy he liked the big star on their helmet, but it was love at first sight and he continued to love them his whole life. I’ll miss playing football with my Dad at Thanksgiving, or hearing him shout with my uncles during a great play. I swear every year when the air cools and the first whiff of autumn is in the air my Dad would say, “my favorite time of year, it’s football weather.” Tossing the ball back and forth, especially with his siblings, always centered him. I think no matter what was going on in his life, it gave him a little window back to happier times.

If it had not been for this passion for sports I know we would have lost my father years ago. Between the three major open heart surgeries, the severity of his alcoholism that stretched all the way back to his teens, the abuse of crack cocaine, I swear he is a medical mystery. If my dad wasn’t actively destroying himself he was actively bettering himself, holding on as long as he could, getting all the recovery he could get out of each period of sobriety before falling again, and then always getting back up.

Most of you here did not see him during the three months he was at MCV after his final surgery. Watching the team at MCV keep him alive was one of the finest juggling acts I have ever seen. For most of the first two months he was unconscious, and if he was conscious all he did was scream. I am haunted by the memory of hearing the words, “I’m dying, I’m in hell, please kill me” garbled out in short breaths from broken lungs. I held his hand, I kissed his head, and I told him I loved him and I begged him to open his eyes, to come back to me. And somehow he did, so slowly. He was like a newborn gradually becoming aware of the world around him. A month later he was laughing and joking but fearful that he would never again be without oxygen due to scar tissue on his lungs, leaving his capacity to get oxygen permanently damaged. A few weeks after that he was in physical therapy relearning to walk on his own, practicing making it up just three steps at a time. When he came home I watched him crawl on his hands and knees up 16 steps stopping every few steps to breathe. And in just a few short months after that he was lifting weights and riding the bike at the gym. The week before he died I heard he made it up and down the pool fifteen times. Where did he find the strength? Where did he find the courage? Looking at an old photo, someone said, “Your father was a picture of health.” Perhaps for a time he was, but more importantly, my Dad was the picture of resilience.

 

The Mind

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My Dad was a brilliant man. I don’t think enough people understood that about him. I don’t think he understood it enough himself. I don’t know if it was his working class demeanor, his Appalachian accent, or his love for making people laugh, but I fear so many people who met my dad let their own ignorance blind them to his brilliance. Fortunately there were those who did recognize it.

“When I look back on VCU,” my Dad would say, “I realize they didn’t teach me shit.” We’ve all heard it, from his mouth and countless other artists around the city. How could this institution which hangs over the city like an umbrella, unchallenged, provide so little in the way of real education in one’s craft. Nobody wanted to teach me how to draw, he would complain. And he called the painting department the “collects shit” department. When I was frustrated by the ways in which I felt slighted in school, my dad would always say, don’t worry about it Miguel, none of the faculty at VCU thought I would amount to much but here I am with a career. Oddly enough, despite his disdain for the institution, he spoke about some of his faculty and classmates with the warmest of affection, and I know from countless stories that his time at VCU was one of the happiest of his life. My father, as you all know, was full of contradictions and complexities.

When my dad attended Radford University and studied under Paul Fretts and Halide Salam, he found his true voice and faculty who recognized his brilliance. He loved telling me about how Paul had worked under Elaine deKooning and how once when my dad was being too delicate, indecisive and cautious in completing a painting, Paul tacked a note next to it that said, “Shit or get off the Pot.” We visited Paul’s studio a few years ago and being surrounded by his mentor’s work left my dad with so much inspiration and joy. My dad had a special place in his heart for Halide. He always talked about her class on the Russian avant garde. I don’t know if the content of the class had much impact on my dad’s artwork, but I do know that having a forum in which to share his thoughts, a forum in which he was treated with respect and dignity, not as a friend, or as a student, but as an artist, was truly life-changing for him.

It is so funny to hear his account of his education at VCU compared to his students. A friend of mine who I met at the New York Academy stopped me once and said, “Are you Bill Fisher’s son.” I laughed and asked him how he knew my dad. He said he never had my father as a teacher, but would try to listen in on him critiquing artwork because his insights were so valuable. He was blunt, tough, and funny. Some of my favorite quotes of my dad as an instructor were:

“No dead rock stars! Draw from observation. I don’t want to see another Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix in my class!”

“Express yourself?! You’re either eighteen or nineteen, I doubt there is much you need to express that will be of any interest to me.”

“Look you may be expressing your feelings but so am I when I yell after stubbing my toe, but nobody’s calling it opera!”

“Before you share with the class your treatise on man’s inhumanity to man, why don’t you show me that you can draw the damn box.”

“I never understand why my colleagues have to talk so much! Most of class I sit quietly and my kids are doing great.”

I also remember my dad driving through the fan and seeing a former student jogging down the street. He rolled down the window and yelled, “Run fat boy!” to which his student gave my dad the finger and smiled, “Good to see you Mr. Fisher.”

My dad was too intense for a lot of his students. They weren’t ready for someone like him, someone who loved his craft, someone who took his calling seriously, someone who did not tolerate bullshit. And as an instructor at VSU I understand what my dad was dealing with. Polarizing, yes, but out of a need to see those students reach higher potentials. For all the former students who have called my dad mean, politically incorrect or insensitive, there are countless more who were thankful to have someone in their life that demanded their best effort. My dad was determined to make sure that the next generation of young artists got the education he wished he had. He so badly wanted to his students to go on to be successful in life, to be their best selves. VCU doesn’t know what it lost when they lost my dad, and I imagine still don’t, and he didn’t know what he would be losing when he left. One afternoon while we were both working in his studio he stopped paintings, paused, turned to me and said, “You know what Miguel, I never knew I would miss the kids so much.” He so deeply loved his students.

When my dad was picked up by Ethan and Ivan Karp at O.K. Harris Gallery, he had found a true champion of his work. Once someone referred to a few paintings in a stack my dad brought up as “the good ones.” “What are you talking about,” we overheard Ivan say, “all of Bill Fisher’s paintings are good.” My dad was at home in New York, and I have mixed feelings about his decision to stay in Richmond. He had mixed feelings too. He stayed because in Richmond he knew where to get a fix, but he also stayed because in Richmond he had his family and friends that he loved so dearly. “Richmond’s like my favorite old jeans jacket,” he would say, “I’m just comfortable here.” But in New York he was well respected. Sales slowed dramatically after the recession, and my dad being my dad did not blame the economy as much as he blamed himself. His self worth faded, but he got some of it back when he overheard Ivan Karp say, “I don’t care if I never sell another Bill Fisher, he is a great artist and his work deserves to be seen.” Ivan’s passing was a serious blow to my dad but it is important for his son Ethan and their family to know how much they did for my dad, and how thankful all who loved my dad are for them. My grad school buddies and colleagues outside of school were fascinated by the surface my dad could create, and the energy he got out of relatively limited ranges of color. I went to school in Tribeca, one neighborhood south of OK Harris, and worked for two years at Soho Art Materials just a couple blocks down, and I can not express to you the pride I felt of walking down the street and seeing my dad’s paintings hanging in a window, the name Bill Fisher elevated above the street for everyone on West Broadway and Broome St.

And that same pride came over me when I saw my Dad’s work lit up like a Christmas tree for all of Newbury street in Boston. I couldn’t believe it. Never had I seen painting so respected in its presentation. Arden Gallery has been so good to my dad. He loved Hope and Zola so much for believing in him and believing in his work. As someone who was once embarrassed and shy to tell people he was an artist, referring to himself as just a lifeguard, the joy it must have brought him when he could stand a block away and see a bright light in the city, and say that’s me, that’s my work. God I hated when my dad said “cancel your plans I need you to drive some work for me up to Boston.” Now I look back on those trips and I miss them so much. I would love to be driving across the country with my dad right now, just us discussing art and music and telling jokes. His career provided us with such wonderful adventures.

His descent into abstraction was a very slow and gradual one, but the day he mustered up the courage to make his first abstract painting, to come clean with himself about who he was as an artist, he described as the most liberating day of his life. He knew it wouldn’t showcase his ability as a draftsman, or impress anyone with its resemblance to a photograph, but my dad wasn’t into cheap tricks. He had a soul and he had to share it. It is why he labored so hard and worked and reworked his paintings so often. Once a colleague dismissed him as a process painter which deeply wounded him. Looking back I wonder how he could have allowed them to inspire doubt when, much like life, my Dad had no specific process to speak of. Every painting was a struggle that had to be won one mark at a time and it was never enough to impress people, it had to be honest. He crawled in the dark, one mark at a time, with no map, towards his truth.

I always loved the little bits of incidental culture that would slip into his work, be it a Tom Waits quote like “cross my wooden leg and swear on my glass eye” or the words “post no bills” or “open all night.” He was always absorbing the world around him and not like Warhol and his followers who he often said left a legacy of the worst art ever created (a title he also bestowed on all followers of Duchamp) who would look at the new billboard and say how can I use that? How can I ride this trend? No, my dad didn’t care about new billboards, it was the old ones, the hand painted sign that faded, the chipped paint job, and parts of the city nature had begun to reclaim. In this he saw reflected what he called the “battle between the classicist and the romantic that wages in every artist.” Urban decay brought him face to face with cycles of construction and destruction, and the themes carried over from his early work in the 90s into the more recent paintings where he transposed his childhood drawings, memories of catholic school, swimming pools, and above all else depictions of his own wounded flesh in layered cakes of paint like deposited time. Through the metaphor of painting, he synthesized such vast portions of his being.

He was so cosmopolitan. I remember sitting in traffic with him in a Uhaul heading for the Lincoln Tunnel, and him telling me about what a wonderful childhood he had in West Virginia, and how in many ways Appalachia would always be home. I think he could adapt to so many environments because he had a great empathy for people. How many people have you met who passed their time in jail reading the plays of Edward Albee. How many people have you met who sang the entire second disc of Pink Floyd’s The Wall acapella in the car with their son, and later went to the studio and put on the solo recordings of Thelonious Monk. How many people have you met who had a deep appreciation for Stanley Kubrick and Mike Myers. My dad was cultured not to impress anyone but because he loved the world. He would often say to me, “like Rothko, Miguel, I too believe that all great art is a meditation on man’s mortality,” and, “never trust someone who can’t laugh at a good fart joke.”

 

The Spirit

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My dad was so invested in his spirituality and at the same time so quiet about it that of the three foundations of his being, this one is the hardest to discuss. He thought public prayer was grotesque and that if you are going to pray to God you should do so in private, not for the entertainment, approval, or gratification of others. “Prayer should either be done with loved ones or in the privacy of the home” he would say. I never saw him pray, but I know he did. He spoke about his Catholic upbringing with reverence and at the same time spoke of the guilt he internalized as a young boy. It seemed as if his faith helped him forgive everyone around him but never himself. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was somehow corrupt or inherently bad in spite of the fact that he openly challenged the concept of Hell. He would say, “I don’t believe anyone in the world has ever been so bad that God would punish them forever.” He always sided with hope. He was so adamant about forgiveness, because he needed it so badly. If he gave me any insight into the human condition it would be that great compassion comes with great suffering.

Through art he could transcend the boundaries of ideology to a purer relationship with his faith. He missed Latin mass and the beauty of ritual. The patience, the meditation, the music, the sculpture, the painting, the architecture that is what he carried with him. He most cherished the parts of his religion which spoke loudest through silence. He didn’t need the politics, the interpreters, or any middle men. In times of need he just wanted a friendly Priest to reflect with, and beyond that he wanted to be left alone with God however he understood him.

This innermost part of my dad’s being left even me a witness on the outside, but what a beautiful thing it was to witness.

Once while coming through the doorway to his studio he turned and said to me. “They got it all wrong, those fools think this is a Job. What we do is not a job. Painting, is a priesthood.”

I agree with him wholeheartedly. Painters like us didn’t choose this, we had a calling, it is a calling to persevere through poverty, anxiety, and doubt. It is also a calling to a deeper and more fundamental relationship to the world around us. If we are right then my father’s priesthood was of the highest order.

 

With that I want to leave you all with one final memory:

 

As the storm approached, and the sun set beneath the clouds, I watched the ever more turbulent waves stack like stairs as the sea turned umber, amber, and gold. My family began making their way to back to the beach house. Ascending the dunes towards the boardwalk I turned back to see my Dad alone, going in for one last dip. Even at a distance I saw joy come over him, the earth, the sea, the sky, the sun, all there ever was, all there ever will be, and my Dad, at peace, even if only for a few moments.

 

My mother says I kept my dad with us for years, but I didn’t do it alone. Thank you to all of his friends, all of our family including Calvet who my dad loved as his son, and remember these words which he often shared with me:

“It is not the length of life but the depth of life that matters.”

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A New Kind of Alone

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Paul Cezanne – At Water’s Edge

Lately I have found it increasingly difficult to communicate my ideas in the studio verbally. This isn’t just a problem with my friends and family but with other painters as well. This would not be difficult if these ideas did not inspire a need to be voiced with the same intensity that my more juvenile revelations did. The likelihood of miscommunication and alienation seems to be increasing.

This is particularly the case regarding the subject of composition, which I believe is rarely dealt with holistically, that is to say in a fashion that treats perception, abstraction, and conceptualization as a continuum as opposed to separated genres as it is so often taught. This fragmentation of our understanding is rooted in a pervasive mind-body dualism which plagues our culture, painting being of the less dire victims. But that is a conversation for another day.

The desperation to articulate my ideas did not become evident to me until I saw them finally reflected outside of myself. After one of my last shifts at Plant Zero Cafe I stumbled across a book on Cezanne. In it I found a passage that deeply moved me, that so articulated how I have come to understand my craft. Cezanne states:

To look upon nature is to discern the character of one’s model. Painting does not mean slavishly copying the object: it means perceiving harmony amongst numerous relationships and transposing them into a system of one’s own by developing them according to a new, original logic.

If you are a painter and do not understand the above statement, study composition, especially the historical modes of organizing an image, meditate on their relationship to perception, and the ways in which they act as a metaphor, and with practice, it will become clear.

Although historical modes of composing are a major part of the curriculum I teach at Virginia State University the precise ways in which perception, abstraction, and concept overlay and work to create a whole composition is elusive to my students. Their education seems fragmented even when the dots are explicitly connected for them. I realize now that some relationships, some understandings, come with hard earned experience. They have to make the journey, all I can do is provide a map.

So teaching fails to relieve me of my inability to communicate. Fortunately if I can not speak directly to the living, I have access to the letters of the dead.

Christine Lockerby, my brilliant girlfriend, bought me a copy of Cezanne A Life by Alex Danchev for Christmas. After stumbling across the above passage I eagerly dug into this book in search of new insights and reflections. One quote that particularly resonated with me was from Pissaro:

When I start a painting, the first thing I strive to catch is its harmonic form. Between this sky and this ground and this water there is necessarily a link. It can only be a set of harmonies, and that is the ultimate test of painting…. The big problem to solve is to bring everything, even the smallest details of the painting, to an integral whole, this is to say harmony.”

Yes! Harmonic form! Something that realist like myself seldom concern themselves with when striving to make a thing look like the thing! Painting, by its limited nature, is never a copy of nature, but a transposition of relationships, and like a melody being transposed to a new key , our perceptions of the relationships between various wavelengths of light can be subject to multitudes of transpositions on the picture plane. And how often do painters neglect the harmonic possibilities available to them, relying on habitual prescribed palettes and modes with no concern for the vocabulary and metaphors inherent in the visual language. I blame this in part to the hard division drawn between realism and abstraction, leaving many realist who think they are “redeeming” art pathetically incapable of comprehending the very act of painting. They lack a broad scope, a vision, satisfying their egos because “this looks just like the thing I was looking at” as if there is some inherent virtue to mimicry. This is not to diminish the importance of perceptual study, it is paramount, but not an end in itself. When treated as an end, the art of painting is reduced to a parlour trick.

It is not mimicry that ultimately counts but experience. The experience of engaging the world, seeking out relationships for one’s self, and the intrinsic value of a work of art as it is experienced.

This sentiment is well articulated in the following quote from Cezanne:

The Louvre is the book from which we learn to read. However, we should not be content with memorizing the beautiful formulas of our illustrious predecessors. We have seen a dictionary, as Delacroix used to say, where we will find all the words. Let us go out. Let us study nature in all its beauty, let us try to grasp its spirit, let us seek to express ourselves according to our individual temperament. Besides, time and reflection modify our vision, little by little, and finally understanding comes.”

Yes! Solitude! More solitude! The absence of which is the thorn in my side when trying to educate young artists who struggle to distinguish the carefully cultivated experience of popular media from the wild wilderness of individual human experience.

“No you can not just copy an image you found on google, go out and seek your own subject matter.”

Their wells are shallow, but they are young, and too their credit are often in search of their own humanity. The very act of which seems to spit in the face of the status quo. As Cezanne said regarding Pissaro:

“Study modifies our vision to such an extent that the humble and colossal Pissarro find his anarchist theories substantiated”

What I seek, in an age of rigid identity politics and methodological stances, is transgressive. If linear perspective was a means of obliterating the 4th wall between the tangible and the allegorical, and tenebrism the light of God illuminating a dark world, and neo-classicism the contemplation of ideals, and impressionism the fleeting glimpses of a new fast moving industrialized world, and cubism the admission of doubt about the objective self, then please lets take a moment to ask ourselves what is the metaphor of cutting and pasting? Seriously, take a moment to reflect not just on the subject of our images but the content that arises through the means by which they are created. If to be an artist is to simply appropriate previously digested images with prescribed social meanings, where is their room for the inner self?

Where do we meet? Will I find you tending to the media, or in the wilderness of your being?

Do you follow me? If you don’t, then no worries. If I sound a bit mad I promise I am impassioned but my wits are with me. The self is a vast place.

I am comforted by these words by Rilke, words I have quoted before, and I am sure will again:

“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”

For Uncle Rod

I would like to thank my family and friends for their kind words and appreciation for the Eulogy I gave this past Wednesday for Uncle Rod. I had not anticipated the overwhelmingly positive responses from you all and it has deeply moved me. As requested by many of you I am posting it to see and share. I will also make some hard copies as well.

Also a special thank you to Tonnie Vilines and all other participants in the ceremony. You all truly know and honor him as the unique individual he was.

It will be so hard going forward without my Uncle, sometimes when I imagine his room empty I can hardly breathe, I will miss hearing his voice rapidly call out his unique variation on my nick name “Guelly welly welly welly” when I walk through the door, so it is good to know that I am not alone, and have a wonderful family standing with me.

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This is a painting I did of my uncle, took many attempts for months to get it right, in which despite the physical pain that afflicted him, there was still a spark of love, a joyful spirit. I needed to make record of it, I needed to celebrate him, I needed to show the world the best way I know how, that this is what love and dignity looks like.

 

While reflecting upon my Uncle Rod’s life, and the time we shared together, I realized that a linear summary of our history fails to encompass my experience and his character. As children past present and future have their distinct categories of being; as if we are drifting down a stream, we turn looking backwards towards our past and look ahead anticipating the trials that may be waiting around the next bend. Memories, dreams, hopes, they all move along with us like fallen leaves on the water’s surface. It is all so clear. But as we grow the currents shift and swell around us, becoming ever more turbulent. The memories, dreams, hopes, all that we carry inside us, twist and tumble. Our past tangles with our present, our present obscured by our dreams, our dreams mistaken for our past. We become overwhelmed by the maze of our own existence.

So how can one articulate their reflections on another’s life? Especially a life as rich and diverse as my Uncle’s. The task is daunting, even impossible to complete, but futile? No, never futile. Uncle Rod bestowed this honor on me, and if I can share with you all today one drop of the love he has shown me it will be well worth the effort.

It is hard to think of Rod for very long without thinking of music. Music was always playing when I would come into his room after school. When I was a troubled teenager I would go weeks feeling no pleasure in life but for music and as a result a routine began where I would bring my CD’s to Rod to listen to together. We listened to everything from Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis to Pink Floyd and Nirvana. Whether he liked it or not, he would listen and discuss the content of the music with me. It never occurred to me how much patience he must have had for me, and how perceptive he was. Looking back it seems so obvious that he knew how badly I needed those afternoons with him.

I would relate the music to my own life, and Rod would tell stories about the music he listened to growing up. He told me how he would choose different songs from different artists and order them in imaginary sequences chronicling epic romances he made up in his head. It was during this discussion that I realized that while Rod was not an artist, he certainly had the soul of one. He was a romantic, and I don’t just mean his love of women (which can not be underestimated), but a romantic in the sense that he saw poetry in everyday life.

His sensitive temperament was a gift and guiding light for a boy dreaming of being an artist. I had people telling me what to do in life. I had people telling me what not to do in life. But Rod told me to love life. I will never forget a quiet afternoon where he told me of a visit to Byrd Park where he looked up from his wheelchair, and was enraptured by the pastoral beauty of the evening sky. “God is one hell of a painter,” he told me, before returning to his reverie in silence.

One of my earliest memories, or perhaps it was his memory and he told me about it, was watching the lights bounce up and down on his stereo from my walker. I sometimes speculate that the correlations I made in Rod’s room between light and sound may be why I could never choose between painting and music. He loved retelling his observations of my childhood behavior to me, the more frustrating and strange the more delight he took in it. For example, I would climb into the nook between him and the wall and put my ninja turtles on his belly. I would demand he quit talking to women on the phone and play with me. He would tell me how it drove him crazy, with the most delighted grin. He loved being bothered, he loved being there for family.

And almost as if reliving the same moments, I witnessed this all again when my sister was born. That same delight, that same affection, and I imagined him as a younger man sharing this same tenderness with my mother. There were so many children in his life, and he saw all of us children as his, because he was our Uncle Rod.

And what of his childhood. It is the lot of being of the younger generation that I unfortunately do not know more about his life. I have fragments of memories and stories he felt were necessary to share with me. He loved his mother. In one of our final conversations he told me how his life could have been forfeited at birth. The doctors thought he wouldn’t make it, would be a burden, wouldn’t be worth saving, and with a tear in his eye he told me, “My mother picked me up, and she carried me home.”

Rod loved his siblings too. He taught me a lot about integrity and compassion through the stories of how as a family they stood up against indignities and prejudice on his behalf. Because of his physical appearance, there were people who assumed he was mentally unfit to make decisions for himself. Once a sales associates asked his brother Brandon, “What does he want?” And Uncle Brandon responded, “I don’t know, why don’t you ask him.” To his very last day, I am sure memories like this filled Rod with appreciation and joy.

Rod also taught me through reflecting on his status as a handicap in our society. I was shocked when he told me that people had come up to him in his wheelchair with accusatory tones and asked, “What did you do?!” as if he was to blame for his condition. These accusations cut him and he told me that he had no time in life for people who would ask such a thing. Good fortune is not an indication of good character, and bad fortunate is not an indication of bad character. Rod inspired me to try to see past the superficial before judging another human being.

Women–we cannot forget his love of women. I am sure all of us have stories about Rod’s romantic endeavors. I have collected a few myself. Women were always a priority in his mind. After I grew out a beard, Rod said to me, “Boy, cut that mess off your face!” I then showed him a photograph of a woman I had been dating and he promptly replied, “Boy, don’t you dare cut that mess off your face!” Of the women I have dated, most I have proudly taken to meet Rod, and all of them came away charmed by him. While visiting Rod at Saint Mary’s with my girlfriend Christine, he looked up at her and said, “You are a beautiful woman… and I love beautiful women!” To this day I can not imagine a more concise introduction to Uncle Rod.

And he loved “the water,” as he put it. I have fond memories of our whole family swimming at Uncle Kermit’s pool and I know that the freedom to move independently with one’s own unassisted body, however limited, must have been a joy for him. During one of our final conversations he recalled the times he went swimming with his brothers as a child. I watched the realization that he would not swim again move across his face and he began weeping. I sat with him and wished I had words to comfort him. But no matter how evident his feelings of pain and loss were, he always ended our conversations by saying, “God has been good to me, go tell your friends your Uncle Rod has done more from his wheelchair than most people ever do. I ain’t miss a thing.”

This was not the only time he left me speechless towards the end. He asked me to press my hand to his side. I hesitated and he said, “Do not be afraid.” I felt every rib, I was astounded by his frailty, and he looked at me as if to say yes this astounds me too. Again I wished I had something to say. I wished a lot towards the end of his life, mostly that I could do something for him in return for all that he had done for me.

If I was hungry, Rod would point me in the direction of someone who could feed me. If I was broke, he would make sure I got some cash. If I was stranded, he would make sure I had a place to sleep. He told me over and over, “I don’t want you to ever want for anything.” He never stopped looking out for me.

As a boy I thought a man didn’t say “I love you” too often, especially to his uncles, and I avoided the phrase with Rod when I could. But when I became a man I said it every chance I got. I could never have said it enough, never enough to even the score, to balance the scales, to pay the debt. His love for me was too unconditional, too patient, too vast. What can I do going forward with such a gift? How can I live my life in a way that respects the fact that I had an amazing, wonderful Uncle Rod?

And then I remembered Rod once saying, “I never worry about your sister, because I know she has her eyes on you.” The statement puzzled me at first but I think I am starting to get what he meant. It was a declaration of purpose, to give to her as he gave to me. To give without concern for fairness, entitlement, or expectation of reward. To treat love not as something which can be bought and sold, but as a means and an end in itself. Love needs to be shared.

So let your memories of Uncle Rod drift with you on life’s ever-changing currents. Let them twist turn and tumble throughout your being. And keep giving the gift of yourself to the world as he did, until like Uncle Rod you can look back and say, “I ain’t miss a thing.” Never stop giving.

A Seemingly Unpopular Position

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Looking back on my education, the majority of my critiques were nothing more than pointless distraction. This is not to say I didn’t have many fruitful conversations guided by my teachers and classmates. I am speaking more about the formal obligatory critiques. I know the idea of collective feedback and teaching one to feel obligated to a crowd is socially prescribed in our current consumer culture, but the best bits of feedback I ever had were the ones that emphasized claiming one’s identity as an individual.

The decisions we make as artist are, and should be, our own. This is not to say we shouldn’t learn from others, but what student has ever learned from a teacher or friend who did not do so of their own will? You can not simply insert insight and ability into a student’s mind. They must do the work themselves! And as an instructor you must meet them where they are, however frustrating that may be.

How many hours were wasted on half-assed pieces by students who were more interested in protecting their egos than developing their work? How many hours wasted coddling the disinterested who will give up art making as soon as the education no longer requires them to do so? So much emphasis on learning to talk about one’s art. Talk talk talk talk talk!, ceaseless talk as if one could talk their way into a good painting. What about looking? What about experiencing?

All of it cultivates a juvenile dependency on group approval which is absent once one steps into one’s career. The most liberating moment I have experienced making art is when I stopped asking myself is it good? will it be liked? and started asking, is this what I need to express?

Perhaps that’s why this passage by Rainer Maria Rilke resonates so deep with me:

“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

What moved me about Rilke is that instead of offering false consolation, invalidating my feelings of isolation, or prescribing some theory of success which lies outside of the self, he said yes you are often alone, you need to be alone, and it is okay to be alone.

I do not think total isolation is the ultimate goal of the artist, but acceptance cannot be either. Like an explorer, one must dig deep and travel far. There is hope that others will be moved by your discoveries, but it is the process itself that must be cherished and loved, not the rewards that may come from it.

I think many people paint because they love the smell of perfume, wine, and cheese in the evening. But the real painters do it because they love the smell of linseed oil in the morning.

It is truly an act of faith to fully invest one’s self in one’s art, through the good times, and the bad. To quote my father, “This is not a job, this is a priesthood.”

This Departing Landscape: Mourning and Morton Feldman

feldmanMy grandmother, Regina Fisher, passed away and perhaps I can best describe this grief in musical terms. Every pang of realization hits with the same disorientation but recesses with its own unique combination of memories and emotions. A note, muted and percussive in its strike, ceaselessly repeating itself in endless re-harmonization. Sometimes it is accompanied by nostalgia, sometimes anxiety, sometimes anger, sometimes relief, sometimes fear, and sometimes gratitude. It is never accompanied by a resolution, because the music never ends.

In desperate need of some external expression of what I was going through I turned to Morton Feldman. His music had once helped me grieve after the suicide of a good friend. Now I am grieving again and the piece that is aiding me is “Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety.”

I was so deeply moved when I heard this piece. “Yes!” I thought,”this is what it is to remember a loved one.” The passing feelings associated with individual instances seem to overlay and blend. Joy and sadness, fear and relief, they are all there, finally on one palette, painting a true likeness that is nothing short of sublime.

This elegy was written for his childhood piano teacher, who he describes in the following passage:

At the age of twelve, I was fortunate enough to come under the tutelage of Mme. Maurina-Press, a Russian aristocrat who earned her living after the revolution by teaching piano and by playing in a trio with her husband and brother-in-law. In fact, they were quite well known in those days. It was because of her—only, I think, because she was not a disciplinarian—that I was instilled with a sort of vibrant musicality rather than musicianship.

She connected him with the past:

“Radical composer, they say. But you see I have always had this big sense of history, the feeling of tradition, continuity. With Mme. Press at twelve, I was in touch with Scriabin, and thus with Chopin. With Busoni and thus with Liszt. . . . They are not dead.”

This piece marked the beginning of Feldman’s later career. Full of negative space accented by emotionally ambiguous textures and harmonies. I often consider his music to be an auditory parallel to the paintings of Mark Rothko.

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The emptiness is never empty, but filled with the slow decay, and then recollection in the listener of what came before. This essential quality to his work is best summed up in his own words:

“In my music I am … involved with the decay of each sound, and try to make its attack sourceless. The attack of a sound is not its character. Actually, what we hear is the attack and not the sound. Decay, however, this departing landscape, this expresses where the sound exists in our hearing – leaving us rather than coming towards us.”

What a visceral metaphor for life itself. How like these notes the ones we love come and go in our lives. Their source is a mystery, perhaps the closest most of us come to experiencing a miracle, and their departing like the decaying notes, sublimely resonating beyond the physical circumstances which produced them.

 

For more on Morton Feldman please check out these wonderful articles:

Alex Ross – American Sublime: Morton Feldman’s Mysterious Musical Landscapes

James M. Keller – Feldman: Madame Press Died Last Week At Ninety

Tom Service – A Guide To Morton Feldman’s Music

 

 

“My People”: Robert Henri and The Self

Gertrude Käsebier, Robert Henri, 1907

Gertrude Käsebier, Robert Henri, 1907

I was first introduced to The Art Spirit, a collection of notes, lectures, and letters by the influential painter and instructor Robert Henri (1865-1929) by my high school drawing teacher David Bartlett. After being impressed by some of the passages he shared with us in class I purchased my own copy. Every time I opened the book I would find nuggets of great insight and guidance regarding the practice of painting, but this passage entitled “My People” struck me the deepest:

I find as I go out, from one land to another seeking “my people,” that I have none of that cruel, fearful possession known as patriotism; no blind, intense devotion for an institution that has stiffened in chains of its own making. My love of mankind is individual, not national, and always I find the race expressed in the individual. And so I am “patriotic” only about what I admire, and my devotion to humanity burns up as brightly for Europe as for America; it flares up as swiftly for Mexico if I am painting the peon there; it warms toward the bullfighter in Spain, if, in spite of its cruelty, there is that element in his art which I find beautiful; it intensifies before the Irish peasant, whose love, poetry, simplicity and humor have enriched my existence, just as completely as though each of these people were of my own country and my own hearthstone. Everywhere I see at times this beautiful expression of the dignity of life, to which I respond with a wish to preserve this beauty of humanity for my friends to enjoy.
– Robert Henri

I was moved by the radical optimism of Henri’s words which resonated deeply with my own experience as an Irish, German, African American. It was the first time the notion of a self that could transcend ethnic, national, and cultural boundaries was ever explicitly articulated to me. In a sense he was pointing out that the emperor or in this case emperors, had no clothes. It occurred to me that while our identities are largely dependent on these categories, these categories are not the sum of our being. Every culture is abstracted from our nature as a social human animal, and as such can never be greater than that from which it is derived.

Soon after in Dr. Cunningham’s American literature class I found this sentiment again in the early passages of Emerson’s essay History:

The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

and again in Whitman’s Song of Myself:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
– Walt Whitman

In Henri’s work one can see his attitude towards individuals and nationality in his numerous portraits of Native Americans, Dutch, Blacks, Irishmen, Spaniards, and Mexicans. While looking at his subjects in the clothing of their respective culture I never lose the sense that these are individuals with their own thoughts and lives, never archetypes. As both artists and subjects minorities are too often robbed of individual agency. As a minority the circumstances of one’s race can trump all other concerns in a work of art swiftly eliminating the exploration of more universal themes. How often are white artists expected to explain how their work represents the white experience? I made a point of refusing to indulge my professors in any dialogue about how my mixed race influenced my work because I felt the need to assert myself as an individual. To me Henri sets a bar in capturing human dignity that few artists have reached.

Although Robert Henri’s career as a painter and instructor began over a century ago his disposition couldn’t be any more relevant to painting and culture today. I have speculated that the rise in figurative painting is, after years artwork being appreciated only for its sociopolitical circumstances, a timely reinvestment in themes we share as a common species. This is not to disregard diversity, but to embrace and internalize it. After all in the age of mass information and fast travel who can preserve the old borders of culture without diminishing the self.