Painting Back Stories

Rogue Valley Afterglow

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Rogue Valley Symphony, 2018, 60w x 36h Oil on canvas

At the end of September 2018, on Rogue Valley Symphony’s opening night of the season in Medford, Oregon, the skies opened up a downpour of rain, like nature knifing through a smoke tarp suspended overhead at the corners and heavily laden with water. Enormous raindrops bounced off the ground while I ran a block in my suit to retrieve the 30×30 portrait on white canvas I had painted of the Symphony’s charming conductor, Martin Majkut.

I hadn’t seen Joelle Graves since our first meeting in Chicago in June for the League of American Orchestras Conference, where, having survived a gauntlet of aggressive panhandlers outside the stadium, we sat a few seats away from each other for a White Sox home game. Within a few innings we had established that we were both from Oregon and both new to our orchestra work, with Joelle as a recently minted executive director of one of the most adored symphonies per capita in the country, Rogue Valley Symphony, and I as a painter of symphonies. We left the conference a few days later with a conspiracy to paint a portrait of Martin, if not the whole symphony, and quite possibly both.

Soaking wet I arrived back in the lobby ninety minutes before the season’s first concert, with the portrait facing downward to keep the oil paint out of the rain. Our initial idea was coming together much as we had first envisioned it. Martin’s exhilarated and buoyant passion came out in the portrait, and it was a strong likeness except for the lower jawline and an eyelid confusingly indistinguishable from a lens of his glasses. I had roughed in the painting only a week before, and most of my painting is done with a palette knife, so after rummaging through my leather and canvas messenger bag and not finding such a tool, Joelle and I searched the concert hall for anything that might stand in for one. Upstairs in a reception room she found a cheese spreader and I made progress on the eyelid and jaw on the spot, and then took the painting home until the work on both sides of the painting, administrative and artistic, could be finished. After the concert, plans progressed quickly and a full symphony painting due for auction in February got put on my calendar.

The symphony almost completely sells out each of three venues: Medford, Ashland, and Grants Pass, each time it puts on a concert. I could see why, beginning when Maestro Majkut took to the stage for a pre-concert lecture about the night’s performance to come. Martin is personable, engaging, wicked smart, and funny. I understood a lot of what he said, but Bethany also was interested and informed by his remarks. He was able to illuminate the program for me, a newcomer to classical music, while still engaging someone with surpassing classical music knowledge, like Bethany. In his opening remarks on the new season, Maestro Majkut acknowledged the welcome rain on a region that for the night was basking in an illusion of relief from worst-in-a-generation wildfires; an illusion because the worst fires in the region’s recorded history were still to rear.

When the rosy light shone behind the musicians and Martin conducted lightly on the balls of his feet, I could feel the affinity of the full house knitted together with their symphony. By the time the full symphony painting was on my easel a few months later, it had been hell for thousands of neighbors not far to the south. The sky of the painting was a mixture of the last minutes of sunset and a prolonged clearing of smoke. I saw a lot of fire in the painting and also washes of that natural beauty of sage, and purple peaks, a floor of golden grasslands, and a glow that had settled on the mountains and valleys as Bethany and I left for our 4 hour drive home to the north, when the Rogue Valley took a fresh breath between ordeals, in reflection of its more constant and rugged grace. And speaking of grace, it is women musicians that are the essence of this painting, and the focus of the symphony’s upcoming season.

Majkut 2018
Martin Majkut, Conductor, 2018, 30w x 30h, Oil on Canvas

Spokane and I Go Way Back

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Spokane Symphony, 2018, 60w x 36h Oil on canvas

Spokane comes in and out of my life like a train depot. It seems as I travel that I step off a train and look up to see that it is Spokane’s sign overhead again, and I am never quite sure how to feel about that. Even though I can’t quite pin down the feelings, they are surely there, like visitors on the depot platform, most of whom are family in some stage of separation. I guess the feeling is somewhat anxious and a little melancholy. More than any other of my symphony paintings, this one evokes the host of people and an enormous set of doors that lets them in and through which they depart after some kind of meeting together, a meeting that has moved them and stirred the imagination, but not without complications.

I was born in Spokane in 1972 but I remember very little except a swing in the backyard of a beloved aunt and uncle, a dollhouse under construction on the uncle’s work bench, and a crushing bear hug from a beloved old fellow named Spencer W. Kimball. Almost all of my childhood memories begin in New Mexico after age five and contain the dirty gullies where I hunted blue tailed lizzards and horny toads with my best friend, Levi. My first experience with the symphony was “Peter and the Wolf” with my school class, and I remember being thrilled with the way the musical instruments matched the personality of the characters. I had a strangely transportive experience in the creation of this painting when my mind put that symphony experience as a child in this, the Martin Woldson Theatre at the Fox, but this memory isn’t true. I am sure, however, that I sat on the far right hand aisle of whatever venue it was that hosted that mystery symphony.

When Cicely and I settled our young family in very rural eastern Washington in an abandoned church we were remodeling into a home, we passed through Spokane from time to time. My patent attorneys had offices in downtown Spokane and I had numerous meetings there and paid tens of thousands of dollars out of my back pocket for a 32-count Utility Patent for a new construction system that I demonstrated with 1/8 scale toys I had poured into molds on my kitchen counter. I secured several other Design Patents as well for modular masonry fireplaces that I first put on display in front of a downtown masonry supply store. Whenever I visited Spokane it was with a weight of mixed feelings, for it was these downtown streets where I was doing business that had seen my Grandpa Ben deliberately leap to his death a few years before. My Uncle Don and I spent many nights together in those patent days, sitting at a window that faced east toward Spokane, or on the deck facing east from a vantage high above the plains and coulees, drinking beer and talking over complicated though eviscerating family pain. I was compared, a time or two in my growing up, to Grandpa Ben who had died a severe schizophrenic, because I was somewhat crazy in my late teens and twenties. I was as torn in two as a guy could be because of religious dualism that I couldn’t understand, and I was giving my life to live creatively with no idea at the outset how to make money doing it. It was during the late night beer-laden and cigarette smoke-filled talks that I learned from Uncle Don that Grandpa Ben had been kicked hard in the head by a horse as a young man, and so jumping from a building’s upper floor need not be my destiny, though all three of us might have had a Coleman family depression in common nonetheless. And now, at the time of this painting, Cicely, my former wife and friend of nineteen years, calls Spokane her home. Uncle Don and I mourn our devastated friendship because I returned to my family’s faith after twenty years away and he never found anything to like about that faith that his brothers and a sister had joined without him. And it is four years this month that I no longer drink alcohol or smoke.

So, I guess my original analogy holds up pretty well. I pass through Spokane but I don’t stay. Maybe it keeps a certain kind of residence in me. This painting is a very spiritual one for me. There is a light above mere mortality that illuminates this darkened sphere that we will pass into and out of, and for a moment we try to do the impossible and suspend judgement, and surrender to that music on vibration, so that it can penetrate all the way through all of it, in a very human, but very uniting, and even healing way.

 

Moved by Newport

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Newport Symphony, 2018, 60w x 36h, Oil on canvas

Many of Bethany’s musician friends perform with Newport, Oregon’s Symphony. It is a rather small symphony and, thus, very intimate and much beloved by its small, tight-knit coastal community. I have accompanied Bethany several times when she has performed as second harp, to her friend, Martha Griffith. The best conversations I have had in the audience have been with Newport Symphony’s friendly patrons. I am quite shy but someone has always engaged me there. Newport was one of the very first symphonies that I approached with my idea to do an oil painting to auction off as a fundraiser. I was thoroughly vetted by the symphony executives before I was given access. What came next was a feeling of inclusion that gave me chills from the center of my bones to the surface of my skin.

Just prior to the last concert of the 2017-18 season, Newport had seen the passing of one of its favorite people, Mr. David Ogden Stiers, aka Major Charles Emerson Winchester III from MASH.  He was much beloved as a Conductor-in-residence for the symphony, and when concert time came the community was still grieving. Maestro Adam Flatt conducted a moving musical tribute to him that I observed from the side of the stage. As I watched, I was able to feel Mr. Flatt’s passion. I had told Flatt before the concert that I thought the best perspective for the painting might be looking toward him from the left side of Tubist, Jay Steele. At last, and as agreed, I climbed the several steps to stand beside Jay and his tuba for the final piece. My heart raced to study and film a conductor from within the symphony, albeit the back corner in the semi-dark where I stood wearing all black and with my camera raised. I was thrilled and moved. It is one of the most precious sensory experiences I have ever had. I hoped to paint Flatt’s intrinsic action and command. I hoped to portray the human individuality of the musicians, and I hoped to create a painting that would convey the architecture of this community’s ties, and their elemental relationship to their place.

Whence Walla Walla?

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Walla Walla Symphony, Oil on canvas 60w x 36h

I had owned my own business since my early twenties, starting as a self-styled and self-taught stonemason and sculptor with a permanent place in a pretty good art gallery. The stone masonry was a staple as I also secured patents for inventions of block systems and toys, more art platforms of mostly lackluster success, designer concrete contertops, Buddhist Shed construction, etc, etc… but I decided not to keep it going after 19 years, continually restless and reinventing what I wanted to do. Then came the total final gut punch of launching a new incarnation of my business in the height of 2011’s fiscal cliff debacle that didn’t do my nascent pizza oven product any good in the afterglow of a great recession my business had barely survived. For the first time that I recall in my life I created a job resume and I sought regular work. Weeks and weeks later and dozens of resumes delivered and rejected, I got an offer of a part-time job as a janitorial assistant. After some serious thought I didn’t accept. Weeks later and some 70 resumes delivered, I was offered a tour of Walla Walla Foundry. I was blown away. I had never seen anything like it: glowing liquid metal pouring from crucibles, enormous cyllinders made of cooked plaster that were being demolished in columnar- basalt-like pieces to reveal rough, sprued castings,  red wax forms floating in tubs of water, a metal shop full of the cacauphony of metal welders and chasers while Britney Spears and Ozzy Osbourne blared from a PA speaker. Six weeks later I was offered a job in the filthiest corner of the compound for ten dollars an hour, working under the tutelage of a twenty-something potty-mouthed video game affecionado. Five years later after serving as sand casting and crating lead, Walla Walla Foundry had provided me the hardest and most astonishing work experience of my life. I had been a part of making and delivering some of the most impressive art in the world today for A-list artists whose skills and insights ranged from wholly impressive to juvenile and profanely weak.

I relocated less than two years ago to Salem, Oregon, to live with my wife,  world-class harpist, Bethany Evans, after a year of weekend visits. Sometimes Bethany and the kids, or Bethany alone came to me, but usually I left for Salem right after work on Friday afternoons. Making the most of her visits to me, Bethany was featured in Walla Walla Symphony’s Heart Beat concert series in 2016 and performed for the Kirkman House music series. My favorite of her performances was at the church I attended, where she played a solo aria by Mikhail Glinka, named, “Nocturne” that melted me down and delivered great peace. This painting is a very meaningful convergence of both of our lives.

The piece depicts the symphony as conducted by Maestro Yaacov Bergman, with Cordiner Hall warmly enveloping the musicians in a soft glow. I sought to convey Maestro Bergman’s uncontrived style and his gentle control, as well as a hint of each musician’s personality. Symphony Executive Director, Leah Wilson-Velasco, said of the painting, “Wow!  This is gorgeous! It’s amazing how I can see the personality of each of our musicians!” This painting is an homage to Walla Walla Foundry, with my infusing of copper into much of the oil paint. Still residing in Walla Walla is my beautiful and beloved daughter, Veronika, and many dear friends, making this project particularly close to my heart.

 

 

Diamond in the Rough

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“Tuning Low Strings” , 60w x 20h, 2018

Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra performs in the First United Methodist Church in downtown Portland, Oregon. The chapel is high-vaulted in hardwood beams and trim. Along the entire South wall is a full floor to ceiling bank of stained glass panels in red, blue, and rose that reflect the interior glow back onto the instruments on the stage. The effect is a warm and comforting mellowness. I painted “Portland Columbia Symphony Low Strings” at about the same time that I painted “Tuning Low Strings”, the subject of this post. Both paintings focus on the same group of musicians: those who work directly in front of where I routinely sit while admiring my sweetheart through their bows, instruments, and elbows.

One of my favorite parts of the symphony is the activity that takes place before the conductor takes his podium for the concert. There is usually a pre-concert lecture which is essential for providing context for the works that will be performed, followed by the wonderful activity and cacauphony of all of the instruments being tuned. The context of the lecture expands the imagination and my feeling of connection to the composer’s intent, and the tuning builds pregnant suspense in an insect-like swarm of sound. I was sitting there, after Maestro Byess offered some background to John William’s prolific career as blockbuster movie score composer, and I saw a very special glow of soft femininity in the midst of all these men in their sharp tuxes, like a diamond enclosed in carbon and rock. There, surrounded on every side by symphony men, I glimpsed Bethany standing at her harp, her right arm bent upward behind it, tightening tuners with a key, her left hand stretched and plucking at long strings made of gut, copper, and steel. Her left leg is straight while her right dances and kicks expertly at one of seven pedals going from flats to sharps. Tonight her shifting shoulders are mostly bare above the scoop of her black gown. All around were men clothed high up the neck in stiff collars, but within them, and through a window of instrument necks and sculpted cellos, was the soft femininity of a radiant woman poised in elegant work.

I am old-fashioned in my love of contrast, and even here in the unifying nature of the symphony as a single organism, rightly inclusive of all, I love the symphony for the beauty of women and soft curves against hard angular lines and handsome manliness, and glows amid pure blackness. I saw that night a repeating theme of timeless beauty, and although at the symphony, in a church, I ached as a man for this woman’s natural allure in the simplest way.