Life in Stone

Acrylic and watercolor paints, colored pencil, chalk and pastel on board. 18 x 24"

Acrylic and watercolor paints, colored pencil, chalk and pastel on board.
18 x 24″

Meet Nammu.

When my sister saw this, she thought I had invented a “lizard alien” from my imagination.  “But why is she a mammal?” (Nammu is breastfeeding her infant here.)  To her, it was a logical flaw: reptiles are not mammals, even if they’re from outer space.

Well, I didn’t create Nammu or her child; I am simply trying to restore some life to them, through color; to breathe life into stone through paint, pencil and chalk.

You see, Nammu is an ancient goddess of Sumer–this painting is one in a series of paintings in which my intent is to show the beauty of life in the figures depicted in stone statuary.  My first foray into this is less jarring, as the painting (below) uses color and contrast to elicit an emotional response to a cold-gray statue–but that statue is of a mythical figure who is more palatable, as she appears as a beautiful woman.

Nammu_StoneThe Sumerians, like the Egyptians, Mayans, and countless other cultures, depicted bipedal, non-human-animal-headed deities in their art; they respected, loved, and reviled these people, who had humanlike emotions and who purportedly were flesh-and-blood creatures.

Were they? Honestly, I don’t know or care. What I care about is identifying the humanity–a term for the values and qualities we respect in human beings–in all creatures.  Nammu may look like a lizard, but even in the thousands-of-years-old stone depiction, we can feel her maternal love.

Someone once told me that I look like a lizard–a reference to my acne-damaged skin. (Yes, that really happened–at the day job. See why I paint?) Although I’m an adult and the remark was juvenile, it hurt me deeply.

What is your reaction to lizard people?  Have I convinced you that there is humanity in them, or do you just see something…other, foreign and therefore frightening?  Repulsive maybe?  No matter.  Nammu is full of love and life–just look.  (Related: The Dogon people of Mali’s god Nommo.)

The Sea

The Sea Acrylic on Canvas 40″ x 30″

 

This is “The Sea,” a mythical figure created by her sculptor as one of three representatives of nature who attend the fountain at Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.  I used to walk by the fountain, and its guardians, twice a day, and I was one of many who stopped regularly to take pictures.  The sculptures are beautifully classical; sculptor Daniel Chester French designed the sinewy figures to echo ancient Greek ideals.  Their beauty and their movement already lend themselves to imparting emotional connection–but it always nagged at me that these people are cold and gray, dead, despite the movement that feels so alive.

image (20)I was compelled to paint “The Sea” as alive–with vibrant colors, but without betraying her nature as a stone figure.  So rather than flesh tones, she is blue–in my mind’s eye, she is standing on her pedestal overlooking the sea (naturally).  You’ve seen people reflecting and refracting the blue light that bounces off the water.  Behind her is a red sky–at night or at morning, that’s for you to decide.

There is life in everything, even stone.  I’m sure of it.

Someone once asked me what I was going to paint on the “blank” left side of this composition.  It’s not blank; the orange field is there for reasons of colors and contrast–an intentional choice–but it’s also not ‘nothing'; the left side is a portrait of the sky, and she deserves her space, too.  Can you think of anyone with more passionate and obvious emotions than the sky?  I can’t.

 

Selfies – From Desperation to Resilience

 

Self-portrait as Neon Zebra (2015)

Self-portrait as Neon Zebra (2015)

As described throughout this site, a lot of my art is informed or inspired by music.  Fiona Apple’s song “Anything We Want” includes a visual that has always resonated with me because of the overall story, but particularly because of these lines, which I appreciate as a way by which Apple embraces her scars as a form of intimacy.  In this painting, as a neon zebra of sorts in homage to the song, I’m presenting my own facial scars as a kind of traditional warrior mask.  The making of the painting was emotionally difficult, but the end result is empowering.

My cheeks were reflecting the longest wavelength.

My fan was folded up and grazing my forehead.

And I kept touching my neck

To guide your eyes to where I wanted you

To kiss me when we find some time alone.

My scars were reflecting

The mist in your headlights.

I looked like a neon zebra

Shaking rain off her stripes.

Acrylic paint, collaged paper, medical records and organic materials on canvas 60" x 60"

“They won’t take no for an answer.” (2014) Acrylic paint, collaged paper, medical records and organic materials on canvas
60″ x 60″

This is a large-format painting–a different kind of a self-portrait.  I won’t go into the details–if you want to know what triggered it, listen–but after many years of health complications of unknown origin, I was sent into a state of extreme panic and agitation that needed an outlet.  This was it.  Incorporating paintings, written communications with the U.S. Census Bureau and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with medical records and other personally identifying information, this painting is both an immediate reaction to an acutely life-disrupting experience and a holistic reaction–myself turned inside out, essentially, profiling both the material and the intangible aspects of my identity.

Watercolor pencil on gessobord 12" x 18"

Watercolor pencil on gessobord
12″ x 18″

 

You’ve just arrived home from work and you’re puttering about, getting ready to make yourself a quick dinner.  Slowly, you feel a strange sensation…a toothache? That’s what it feels like, but it’s your eye, not a tooth.  By the time you realize you’re feeling a slight ache, you’re doubled over on the floor in agonizing pain, clutching your right eye.  You are alone, but it feels like someone is there with you, quickly stabbing a life electrical wire into and out of your eye for an hour straight.  Your right nostril streams fluid the entire time.  You get up and run around and around–circles, actual circles.  You get in bed and cover your face but last only seconds before you’re back on your feet, literally trying to outrun the pain.  An hour later, it fades, slowly.  What just happened?  A stroke? A seizure.  You make an appointment with your doctor for a couple of days later; the next night at 7:00 p.m., it happens again.  And then it keeps happening, 7:00 every day.  You are convinced that you are losing your mind.  Your doctor says it doesn’t sound like a migraine; your neuro tests come back–as always; this is predictable by now–normal.  You’re perfectly healthy, you are told; you just need to learn to relax.  It’s a panic attack.  A year later, you find out you’ve had cluster headaches–known, too, as alarm-clock headaches and suicide headaches–potentially the most painful experience known to humankind.  This painting/drawing was made during a cluster headache, using a mirror.  It was begun and completed within the span of the attack, and it was made to chronicle the moment, as I had no idea what was happening but felt certain that whatever these seizures or strokes were were ultimately going to claim my life.  Incredibly, I had one “cluster” of cluster headaches during November 2012–and have not had a single one since.  This rarely happens.  Coincidentally, I discovered that I have had Lyme disease for many years and the majority of “probably multiple sclerosis” symptoms have been completely eradicated since I began antibiotic treatment.  This portrait preceded the one above–“They won’t take no for an answer”–and, together, they are part of an ongoing life narrative that continues to be stranger and stranger as it unfolds.  “Suicide Headache” is the beginning of this chapter; “They won’t take no for an answer” is the climax, and “Self-portrait as neon zebra” represents where I am now–damaged, yes, visibly damaged, but more resilient than ever.  Resurrected.

Charcoal and chalk on paper sketch

Charcoal and chalk on paper sketch

 

And this is a simple charcoal-and-chalk sketch of myself with my father on Christmas day.  “Holiday whimsy.”

Canine Companions

I’ll be honest.  I always thought pet portraits were a little hokey, but lately I’ve been really moved by the love people have for their pets.  Living in a small studio apartment, I unfortunately do not have the luxury of having a dog of my own (and ten minutes in a room with a cat could kill me–allergies)…but that doesn’t stop me from paying tribute to others’.

Here are three paintings, in very different styles, of my sister and brother-in-law’s three dogs…and a sketch of Andy Cohen with his dog Wacha, because I am a little bit in love with him.  (Wacha, that is.  I have a soft spot for troublemaking beagles.)

Andy Cohen and Wacha Cohen...a couple of goofballs.

Andy Cohen and Wacha Cohen…a couple of goofballs.

My "niece," Penny...we think she's an American dingo/Carolina dog.

My “niece,” Penny…we think she’s an American dingo/Carolina dog.

My elder "nephew," Kirby, who has color-shifted from an all-black lab mix to having a beautifully clownish white mask in his old age.

My elder “nephew,” Kirby, who has color-shifted from an all-black lab mix to having a beautifully clownish white mask in his old age.

My younger "nephew," Rudy, an Australian shepherd the size of a VW beetle who thinks he's a chihuahua.  Here, he's being coy in the moonlight.

My younger “nephew,” Rudy, an Australian shepherd the size of a VW beetle who thinks he’s a chihuahua. Here, he’s being coy in the moonlight.

 

Drawings

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school for creative writing, a lot of my friends and family were telling me that I am a strong visual artist and should take my work more seriously.  I emailed a few gallery owners/managers in Washington, D.C., and as one might expect, only a few replies came in from such passive outreach.  The first person replied to tell me that he was not presently accepting any new artists into his fold.  Fair enough.  The second wrote back to tell me she did not have time to write back.  Say wot?  From the third, I got something along the lines of “I took a look at some of your work.  I can see that you have some talent, but I would suggest you take a basic drawing class.”  Ouch.

I was never much of a sketcher, but lately I’ve had more of an attention span for drawing–particularly with conte crayons and charcoal–than painting.  Some of the results:

Conte crayon, chalk, charcoal on toned paper

Conte crayon, chalk, charcoal on toned paper | Companion Song

Conte crayon/chalk on toned pastel paper

Conte crayon/chalk on toned pastel paper   |   Companion Song

Colored pencil on drawing paper

Colored pencil on drawing paper | Companion Song

Portrait of the CNN anchor.  Conte crayon/chalk on black pastel paper.

Portrait of the CNN anchor. Conte crayon/chalk on black pastel paper. | Companion Song

Watercolor pencil on cold-pressed paper

Watercolor pencil on cold-pressed paper | Companion Song

Charcoal and graphite

Charcoal and graphite | Companion Song

Inspired by Tori Amos

Conte crayon on canvas. | Companion Song

image (14)

Conte crayon and chalk on paper. | Companion Song

image (15)

Conte crayon on toned paper. | Companion Song

 

Distant Music

Distant-Music-DMConner

Distant Music | Companion Song

 

“Distant Music” is a 48″ x 36″ acrylic work inspired by the James Joyce short story “The Dead.” In the story, which takes place in Dublin, Ireland, in the 1910s, the character Gabriel watches his wife from a distance. She is standing on a staircase, listening to someone play a piano upstairs. Gabriel realizes how in love with his wife he is at this momen. Gabriel’s wife pines for her deceased first love Michael Furey throughout the story. This painting represents Gabriel’s passion and his wife’s coolness lingering on in the house as it stands today, in a state of disrepair but full of their passiosn.

Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terra-cotta and salmon-pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.

This painting is what is left of that house: it is time-worn, but Gabriel’s passion is so strong that the energy of that moment lingers.

Metatron

 

Metatron, 24″ x 24″ acrylic on gallery-wrapped canvas.

This painting is built on a foundation of the sacred geometry of Metatron’s Cube.  The painting represents transfiguration from an imperfect human form into a higher, but still imperfect form.  It is inspired by stories of Enoch, who in apocryphal ancient texts, was “promoted,” or changed from a human being into an angel, and given the name Metatron.

Sophia

40″ x 30″ acrylic on canvas.  This is how, in my mind’s eye, I imagine Sophia to feel.  (I have strong color and texture associations with certain sentiments, emotions, values, and aspects of music.)

From Wikipedia, a general introduction to Sophia:

In Gnostic tradition, Sophia is a feminine figure, analogous to the human soul but also simultaneously one of the feminine aspects of God.  Gnostics held that she was the syzygy of Jesus Christ (i.e. the Bride of Christ), and Holy Spirit of the Trinity. She is occasionally referred to by the Hebrew equivalent of Achamōth (Ἀχαμώθ, Hebrew חכמה chokhmah) and as Prunikos (Προύνικος). In the Nag Hammadi texts, Sophia is the lowest Aeon, or anthropic expression of the emanation of the light of God. She is considered to have fallen from grace in some way, in so doing creating or helping to create the material world.

The idea of a Sophia, for me, is not specifically religious; however, the overall impression of this entity appeals to my humanity.  In a certain way, I feel the spark of this entity in my own being.

The Sea

the-sea

The Sea | Companion Song

 

“The Sea” is a painting of one of the figures who grace the shaft of the fountain situated in the middle of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.  The sculptor, Daniel Chester French, invented three classical figures to represent aspects of sailing: The Sea, The Stars, and The Wind.  My father was a sailor, and often used to tell me as a child, “Red sky at night, sailors delight; red sky in morning, sailors take warning.”

French’s figures are classically beautiful; what I wanted to do with this painting was add a dimension of life and a dramatic tension exclusively through a bold color contrast rather than depicting the figure “in the flesh.”  Here, I’ve imagined that she is a guardian of the sea, and as she stands over it, she is painted in blue light by the full moon’s reflection over the waves.  The sky is cadmium orange…whether it is morning or evening, and cause for celebration or impending disaster, I don’t know.

Centre Pompidou Rooftop

60" x 60" acrylic on gallery-wrapped canvas

60″ x 60″ acrylic on gallery-wrapped canvas | Literary Companion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In October of 2012, my sister and I flew directly over hurricane Sandy as she was crawling up the East Coast.  We were destined for Paris.  I had to go to Paris–I won’t bother to explain–and she came with me.  It was a beautiful, much-needed vacation, and we were guided by my wonderful ami Tom, who has since launched An American in Paris City Tours.  Tom has lived in Paris for nearly two decades, where he earned a doctoral degree in European art and architecture.

Naturally, Tom referred us to the Centre Pompidou–Paris’s Modern-art Mecca.  I was most excited to see original artwork from my favorite artist, Marc Chagall, but here I also discovered the first work of Picasso’s that truly captured my imagination and moved me.  His 1923 Harlequin:

picasso-arlequin

The Centre Pompidou has a rooftop restaurant that has a 360-degree view of the Paris skyline…the gray, weathered city against an often-dramatic sky.  The deck is outfitted with small, white-lacquered tables with simple metal chairs.  Everything is industrial–except the long-stemmed red rose situated casually but proudly on every tabletop.  My sister took a lot of photos of them.

Red roses aren’t normally my thing, but the rooftop was impressive.  Unfortunately, the photos did not come alive.  So, thinking of my sister, I decided to try to paint my impression of the rooftop.  I can’t say I am entirely satisfied with the painting, but it is nevertheless meaningful to me.  I always paint from my heart, and for better or worse, feeling is always more important to me, in both my own work and other artists’, than technical perfection.  My Pompidou painting is imbued my a piece of my heart, and it doesn’t strive for photorealism.  For better or worse.