Even a child needs a room of her own. Mine was a square of light on the floor of the living room. At dawn, I opened one of my parent’s two art books and place it in the square. The dust lit by the eastern morning light swirled before me as I squatted akimbo; my knees bent flat to the floor in the shape of an M. I leaned my torso forward and pressed my face into the color reproductions of Fifty Centuries of Art. Here in tiny landscapes behind Roger Van Der Weyden’s Madonna and the curtained Dutch rooms of Vermeer, worlds opened up to me that are at once more vivid and appealing than the one I lived in.
Like Alice, I longed to be on the other side. I wanted to live inside a painting.
The walls in my bedroom were beyond repair. In the twenty years that I had lived over the Grange Hall in a small upstate New York town, I never asked the Grange to do anything to the apartment. My collective landlords had a mean age of eighty-three. The solutions they might come up with to renovate my apartment were too frightening to contemplate. Over the years we made a tacit agreement, whereby, I could do anything I wanted, as long as I didn’t ask them to pay for it.
I moved from room to room tearing down the plaster walls, rewiring and then sheetrocking.
All the rooms were done except the bedroom. Without a plumb wall in the place, the slanted lines of the floor and ceiling gave me vertigo. To level, the dresser required large shims under the front legs. Without them, the dresser tilted several inches away form the wall. I let the dresser tilt. The increased gravity helped when I opened the drawers.
The thin wash of paint on the bedroom walls had long since dulled due to the apartment’s heating system, which took hot air heated in the basement, sent it up to the attic in ducts and then blew it down through the ceiling into the room, carrying a century of dust with it.
The room needed doing. Or more accurately, it needed complete undoing.
Having recently returned from the Bonnard exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, catalog in hand, and with nothing left to lose, I decided that instead of tearing down the walls, I could use the walls any way I wanted. And what I wanted was to cover my walls with Bonnard paintings. Bonnard’s paintings could be described as a fusion of Monet’s obsession with light and Matisse’s with color. He sat on the historical pivot between these two artists. His paintings are organized by light, in a palette that is rich and vibrant.
My room, too, would be organized by light. Bonnard’s light.
I painted his windows next to my windows, a corner of his room in the corner of my room. Out of Bonnard’s windows, you could see the Seine in the distance. He painted this painting when he lived in Vernonnet, as small village six miles downstream from Monet’s house in Giverny.
Monet’s House in Giverny.
I once lived in Giverny as an artist-in-residence at the Claude Monet Foundation.
Six miles further down stream lived Jan, a Welsh woman who settled in France eighteen years before I met her. She taught English to the French and French to the English. She was my tutor in all things French. She had an ease with language, understood things in context, and could sort out the nuances of meaning. I found myself under her tutored eye, being seen in a way that I had never been seen before.
When I finished painting this landscape, that Jan and I had once shared, I leaned into the painted window, cupped my hands to my mouth and called out, “Jan, oh Jan.” My space and hers blended on this imaginary plane. With that, my full relationship with the walls began.
The surface of my walls bent and stretched into Bonnard’s.
My room expanded as I extended his floor onto my walls, adding a painted balcony, a fireplace, tiled floors, iron bathtub, a dog I called Flat and two unnamed cats. I painted plants, chairs, tables, stools and still lives, everything but the figures. I wanted to be the figure in the painting.
When a 1910 clock that perfectly matched the one in Bonnard’s painting appeared in a local thrift shop, I knew that my job wasn’t finished.
Photograph by Duane Michels
Soon tables, chairs, bowls, and baskets manifested in the room as though they were moved from Bonnard’s room into mine.
But just as these pieces were being pulled into the third dimension, my tilting dresser flattened as I ignored its shape and on it painted cadmium yellow wall tiles transmuting to lavender.
Photo by Duane Michels. This table is painted with an image from Matisse.
The spatial warp continued as I painted one of my tables with a still life.
My pale floral rugs looked sickly in this vibrant room. So I took up rug hooking and hooked my dog “Flat” into the tiled floor.
When I stood in the bedroom and looked through two sets of doors to my bathroom, my doors had the same configuration as the ones in the painting. You couldn’t tell where the room ended and the painting began.
One Sunday as I stood on my ladder painting yet another window on the wall, I saw the Bonnard catalog, open on the floor in a square of light. I had done it. I was living in a painting. I sat in the painting, moved in the painting and slept in the painting. My real and imagined worlds merged. And now, as I call out to Jan, my journey reverses and I long to walk through the painting and emerge from this safe place of my creation into the real space of the people I love.
I painted “Centering” right after “Conversations with Giotto” and “Silver Light”. In “Conversations” I explored the seminal story in Western art about Giotto creating the perfect circle. The circle itself became a symbol for the artist. In “Silver Light” I explored how I could turn a line into the field. When I painted “Centering” I was after something else entirely.
“I lost the use of both thumbs and my hands were in splints for several months.”
I was living through a challenging time when I lost the use
of both thumbs and my hands were in splints for several months. I knew that my
ability to paint was not just in my hands, nor was I the first artist to face
this limitation. Renoir suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and his brush had to
be strapped to his hand. Chuck Close became a quadriplegic but regained use of
his arms. He, too, straps his brush to his hand and paints, sometimes guiding
the right hand with his left.
With “Centering” I wanted to see if when giving myself the limitation of making a painting only using circles, I could make a painting that was also expressive of the upheaval I was going through. It did not come out right away. It was as if that aspect of the painting was buried. I started on a black background. I covered the entire painting with a thick coat of white oil paint. Then I made the circles with a pencil, dragging the point through the white paint revealing the black underpainting. I continued this way until I removed most of the white paint with the point of the pencil. It was not what I was after.
Ivory black, the same black that was used by Manet, originally was made from a porous, black, granular material produced by charring animal bones.
I decided to continue using an ivory black oil stick. Ivory black, the same black that was used by Manet, originally was made from a porous, black, granular material produced by charring animal bones. (It is no longer made this way.) It is also what Richard Serra used to make his heavily blackened drawings. I believe it was also used on his wall drawings at The Menil. All of these associations went into my choice of this material.
It was easy for me to wrap my hand around the large oil stick. I dragged it repeatedly over the surface until I was able to get thick dense circles. Ivory black is a warm black, and I wanted the circles to be dense, warm and primordial.
“The hand injury made me question the source of my art. Where does it reside in me?”
The hand injury made me question the source of my art. Where
does it reside in me? These large circle paintings are meditations on that –
the origins of art, where it comes from, and when the means of conveying it
gets interfered with, will it still come out, will it still be a full
expression of me and my intention?
As I painted this, the question it posed to me was – what makes me an artist, is it in my hands or does it reside elsewhere. I call the painting “Centering”, because like meditation it both poses and answers the question, and poses it and answers it, and poses it and answers it.
Over the last year I have had several versions of an exhibiiton that I call, “Continuous Flow”. The first in Boston at Soprafina Gallery, the second and largest at SUNY Oneonta, and in April, a third at Gremillion and Company, Fine Art, Inc. in Houston, Texas. These shows came at an interesting time for me. In 2017, as I was preparing for these exhibitons, I lost use of my hands for six months. I had double trigger thumbs, which meant I could not bend my thumbs, write my name, or hold a brush. What to do? I kept working. I had already been augmenting my representational work with splattering paint and other means of applying paint, so I wasn’t at a complete loss as to how to proceed. But I did decide to give myself room to do a lot of experimentation with materials, imagery, and application. In many ways, this process brought me back to my roots as an abstract painter.
What evolved was an exhibition that certainly reflected this experimentation, and yet through out the work there was a cohesion. I believe that it came from a couple of sources. First of all, all the work was going through my filter — so light and questions of illusion and representation were going to be part of it. But also the words I would use to describe this exhibition has to do with frequency and resonance. And almost all ofthe work had some sort of dialog going on with “the other side”. People have described my paintings as portals. I find this both amusing and accurate. As a child my greatest desire was to live inside a painting. Moving in and out of the depicted space is always something I have been after, whether the piece is abstract or representational.
Here is the blueprint of the gallery, followed by the work in the order that it was laid out:
My painitngs are about light. When I paint representationally and I am about the business of rendering light, I often choose a subject that is back lit. It seems to offer the most extensive and complex qualities of light — light on a surface, passing through a surface, reflecting off of a surface, often highlighting transparency, translucency, reflection, or glitter. The most complete expression of this can be seen in my china paintings, although it occurs in most of my work.
But how do you get these qualities when you work abstractly? It’s not something I figured out all at once. It started when I was trying to paint the light that glitters off the surface of water. I used white paint, but it felt dull and did not leap off the surface of the canvas. Then I scapped the silver off of a CD and applied that, and that didn’t work either. As I drove home one rainy night I noticed how the stripe on the road reflected the light off my headlights and I thought — that’s what I need. I called the highway department and asked them if I could buy some reflective road paint. It’s not the paint that is reflective, he told me, its the beads of glass that we put in it, and with that he gave me the address of their supplier.
Later I came upon diamond dust, which is even better than highway glass for reflecting light, but I was unable to find a supplier. I used the highway glass to good effect in the river painting.
Then I was working on a series of almond tree paintings, which at first I rendered quite realistically. But after taking a workshop with Vincent di Siderio, a well-known representational painter, who mentioned that he often started a painting by throwing tar on it or rustoleum, I thought, why not approoach this work that way. Apply the paint differently and why not use mettalic paint, after all, Jackson Pollock did.
When I finished “Tree in Twilight” and hung it on my west facing wall, I observed how the light reflected off the surface of the painting and changed every time you moved. It also took on different qualities of light at different times of the day. Immeditately I saw that instead of showing the light of the moment, it was creating a different light each moment. With Monet’ s paintings of the Epte River, he shows you how the light changes moment to moment. With “Tree in Twilight”, the painting itself changes each moment.
From there the work became more and more abstract, but the quality of light and sensation of light remained the subject. Whether I paint representationally or abstractly, I still want the painting to have light emanating from the surface.
I’ve been having conversations with Giotto di Bondone [c. 1267 – 1337, born in Florence, Italy] since I was twelve years old and my class studied the Rennaissance. The conversation became obsessive when in 1987 I created a cycle of paintings recreating the paintings of the Arena Chaple on seven shaped canvases, the largest of which is 18 by 24 feet. [You can see them here.]
“The Last Wall”, oil on shaped canvas, 18 feet x 24 feet, 1987
There are three stories about Giotto. One that as a child he was drawing a sheep on a rock and Cimabue saw this and was impressed and invited him to become his apprentice. Another is that one day while Cimabue was out Giotto painted a fly on Cimabue’s self portrait that was so realistic Cimabue tried to whisk it away several times. Many years later, the fly becasme a symbol of the artist and was inserted frequently into Dutch still life paintings.
But it is the third story that has occupied me recently.
Vasari [the chonicler of “Lives of the Artists”] relates that when the Pope sent a messenger to Giotto, asking him to send a drawing to demonstrate his skill, Giotto drew a red circle so perfect that it seemed as though it was drawn using a pair of compasses and instructed the messenger to send it to the Pope. The messenger departed ill pleased, believing that he had been made a fool of. The messenger brought other artists’ drawings back to the Pope in addition to Giotto’s. When the messenger related how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without the aid of compasses the Pope and his courtiers were amazed at how Giotto’s skill greatly surpassed all of his contemporaries. [Wikiwand]
This winter when I started to paint circles, of course I thought of Giotto, but never more so than when I began to draw them on a large canvas.
To do this I sort of dropped into a meditative state. If I thought too much about what I was doing my mind would interfere with my hand.
Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp
This summer as I was framing over a hundred pieces for an Open Studio event, my hands decided to rebel. At first it was my right hand. The thumb became a stiff rod in what I came to understand was a trigger finger. I could not bend it at all! I had some notion about what was up because of the Rembrandt painting of Dr. Tulp showing his students that the tendon he is holding in the forceps in his right hand controls the motion of the fingers that he is demonstrating with his left hand. Soon after my right thumb went out, the left one followed. I felt as though my thumbs had been slammed in a car door. And as a painter, I was desperate to fix my hands without doing further damage. The fear was choking.
As luck would have it, one of the best hand doctors in the region came to the Open Studio. I didn’t know it then, but found out when I was sent to him by my general practitioner. Our first line of defense was a shot of cortisone. Shots in your hands are terribly painful and I screamed, “I hate you,” at the doctor. Unfortunately, I seem to be allergic to cortisone and it exacerbated my situation. It also sent me running for an alternative cure. I spent months receiving massage, seeing an accupuncturist, wearing a brace, seeing a physical therapist. Nothing, no change. I finally conceeded that surgery might be the only solution.
Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomical Drawing of a Hand
For the doctor the proceedure was a rather simple thing, a ten minute operation that can be done under a local anesthetic. As you can see in da Vinci’s drawing there are bands that hold the tendons in place. The operation consists of cutting the band at the base of the thumb. My mantra to myself was — please make my hands strong and flexible.
I had the hands of Michelangelo’s “David” in mind.
The stitches were removed today. I still have some swelling and I don’t have full range of motion yet. But the thumb bends well enough to handle a brush, and the doctor assured me that this would continue to improve. In the meantime, the left hand is going back into a brace to try to delay what may be the inevitable. I brought the doctor a print of the painting by Rembrandt and for a brief moment our worlds aligned.