Paint Schoodic

We're offering three workshops for 2020, at Acadia National Park, Pecos, NM, and Tallahassee, FL.

Friday, July 10, 2020

A friend challenges me to go deeper.

Paintings aren’t made in grand gestures; they’re made with brushes, one stroke at a time.

Morning Fog over Whiteface Mountain, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

When I was younger, I did a lot of work that told a story and had deeper meaning. Today, much of it seems sophomoric. I prefer to concentrate on simple landscape.

In one sense, I’ve been resting. My childhood wasn’t easy, and I carried psychic wounds for a long time. I’ve no interest in poking at the scabs. Moreover, I don’t know where to start. While the Bible is my own personal source text, all the reasons to paint Bible stories are obsolete now. Film and the written word are far better at communicating sermons.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t great modern painters who’ve told Bible stories. Sir Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham, manages to wonderfully humanize a difficult idea, with its blinking villagers awakening from their long sleep.

Snowfall, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

Story-telling is intimately tied with figure painting, for the obvious reason that our stories are based on people. This week I came across a cache of figure sketches. “These are not bad,” I told Adam Levi, who is the Executive Director of Rye Arts Center. They’ll be mounting a show of my figure work in 2021, and I thought the sketches would make a good counterpoint to the framed work.

But landscape painting also has meaning. A Turner maelstrom, a Constable sky, or a Rockwell Kent sea convey as much about our anxieties, fears and hopes as any figure painting. Which conveys isolation better: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks or Winslow Homer’s Weatherbeaten? Tough call.

The ideas conveyed by landscape painting are largely non-verbal. When I’m asked for an artist’s statement, I try to put them into words, and I can’t. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” wrote King David. It’s hard to improve on that.

Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

This week, John Nicholson sent me a quote that stopped me cold. John’s a Southern Baptist pastor from Marion, Alabama. He’ll undermine every stereotype you ever had about southern preachers.

“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” 

The writer of this terrible challenge was the famous Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky was, like me, a rotten student, a troublemaker in school, and had trouble settling down to a career. After booting around as a prospector in the taiga, he decided to study film. It was the one thing that held his interest.

The Late Bus, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

Tarkovsky remained a devout Orthodox Christian during a time when religion in Russia was actively suppressed. In the end, like so many other Russian intellectuals, he was forced to defect. “The Soviet authorities left me no other choice,” he said. They’d allowed him to make only six films in a quarter of a century. They considered him a “dead soul, a zero.”

In 1966, Tarkovsky made a three-hour epic film about an icon painter, which was immediately suppressed. Ivan Rublev is at once a loose biography of a 15th-century monk, a portrait of medieval Russia, and a self-portrait of the struggles of a modern Russian artist. It won an award at Cannes and today it’s considered a masterpiece.

In the face of such depth, I feel like I have very little to say with my happy little landscapes. I don’t even know if I’m capable of rising to the challenge. But paintings aren’t made in grand gestures; they’re made with brushes, one stroke at a time. I’m thinking about it, John.


David Hunter said...

I really strongly disagree with the idea that art is to prepare for death. How negative. I recommend you ignore that quote.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Painting is an expression of the soul; whether or not it has meaning or purpose is left to the viewer. It is like singing in the shower. I do it for my own pleasure. If someone else enjoys it, finds deep meaning in it, or is driven to a new purpose because of it, so be it.