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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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Chicago Impressions

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Chicago Symphony, 2018, 72w x 48h Oil on canvas

It was a 33 hour drive, in a minivan full of oil paintings of symphonies, from Salem, Oregon, to downtown Chicago for the League of American Orchestras annual conference. I loved the drive, fatiguing as it was. I had an overnight visit with family in North Salt Lake and was touched by the way they rallied around me to offer encouragement before sending me further down the road. Traveling east from the Wasatch Front in Utah, was Wyoming, stunning in desolate beauty. Then all the way across Nebraska’s prairies, serenely mimnimal. And then my first time through Iowa, comforting and gentle with verdant knolls. I really loved Iowa. I left Illinois for the last day of driving and entered Chicago with time to spare.

I parked at the loading dock of the Palmer House Hotel and gracelessly moved large paintings on ill-fitted luggage carts up freight elevators. Behind the other paintings I had on display, my painting of Chicago Symphony rested under a new canvas drape awaiting its unveiling during the conference. When I unveiled it, I described that in the history of music there have only been dozens of symphony paintings. I hoped to be the one to paint thousands of classical musicians before I am done. This piece, a little unlike others, is more about seeing the music, and my inability, when watching the symphony at work, to focus on the whole symphony at once. Rather, my focus drifts between musicians and the conductor, continually moving, like the air full of vibration.

Last night I watched Chicago Symphony from the sixth floor balcony, its floor so sloped forward it seemed that at any moment a patron could topple forward over the precipice and into the chasm of the balcony below. Maestro Riccardo Muti has left an impression of great character and grace on my imagination. He is subtle and vibrant. He seemed extremely communicative to the musicians as well as the audience. This is a gorgeous symphony. Yo-Yo Ma danced all over his cello for a Shostakovich symphony that my ears are not yet refined enough to properly appreciate. Though sacrilegious to say, I would have given my right foot for him to do Ennio Morricone instead. The pre-concert lecture was almost my favorite part: entertaining and incredibly informative. Chicago has left an enriching and colorful impression on me.

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Harp-centric

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Symphony Harpist, 2016 70w x 36h Spray paint on board
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Salem Symphony, 2017, 60w x 20 Oil on canvas

I went to the symphony a few times in high school and I really loved it. And then I never went again until I started dating a symphony harpist twenty-five years later. I lived in Walla Walla and Bethany lived in Salem, Oregon. Whenever she had a Friday night concert at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, with Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra, I would have arranged to leave work at Walla Walla Foundry midday on Friday. I would drive 3 1/2 hours west through the beautiful Columbia River Gorge so that I could get to the church in time to change out of my jeans, T-shirt, and steel-toe boots and into dress slacks, a white button-up shirt, black dress shoes and a blazer. Every time I sat near the front row and slightly to the right, directly in view of the harpist. She was often nestled behind the cellos and bassists or sometimes she was situated in the front. My first symphony painting was in my choice of medium at the time: rattle-can off-the-shelf spray paint. I don’t think I had even noticed yet that the harp has seven pedals, but I had painted Bethany at her harp almost immediately after my first experience seeing her there.

My first symphony oil painting was “Salem Symphony”, where she was out front on a slightly lower platform than the rest of the symphony. My second full symphony painting was “Portland Columbia Symphony Low Strings” that places her so prominently, and accurately to my vantage and affection, that the rest of the symphony seems to fade into the distance. But I love this symphony and I am making friends there.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Low Strings, 2018, 60w x 20h

And so, based on the core of musicians directly in front of me, is the following cropping:

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Concert Low Strings, 30w x 20h

I look forward to painting Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra again, but next time I intend to show just a little less harp-centric bias.

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History at Historic Elsinore Theatre

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Maestro and Virtuoso, 2018, 60w x 20h, Oil on canvas

About a year ago, history was made at the historic Elsinore Theatre in Salem, Oregon. The theatre is like a boroque castle with gothic cathedral domes and ornate trimmings on every edge and corner. Maestro Anthony Parnther, guest conducting from Los Angeles, joined with Joshua Bell and Salem Symphony to create a truly moving and thrilling performance for a packed house. I was seated in the upper balcony where the air had been steadily warming over the duration of the concert. Bethany had played harp in the first half and now was free to sit with me for the second half. Even to my less-than discerning eye and ear for violin virtuosity, Joshua Bell was exceptional to see and hear. His physicality was like an organism to which the instrument was an intrinsic part and the music was unlike any I had heard in its clarity, fluidity, and elevation. I loved the way Maestro Parnther moved. His substantial frame light and bouant on the balls of his feet as his hands danced lightly like he was conducting fantastical woodland creatures, and his largeness swooned with the flow. I felt the audience swell in joy and appreciation as minutes disappeared into transport. The audience’s internal criscendo erupted into applause and shouts of, “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!” Mr. Bell consented to an unheard of eight curtain calls in the triumphal culmination of Salem Symphony’s inaugural, and as the musicians discovered only a matter of months later, its final season.

I met with Maestro Parnther a few months later as we dined in Eugene, Oregon. I liked him and our conversation never slowed, and even diverged for a few minutes into our common ties to Samoa in the South Pacific. I have largely forgotten the language though I used to be fluent, and his Samoan mother had taught him in some of the culture’s ways. And so I painted this painting to remember this special night in a special way, and to acknowledge the greatness of human experience possible with collaboration.