My son Weston Kjarval Kosharek was born 3-1-13. There was nothing in the world that could have prepared me for the experience. Nothing. And I am not talking only about meeting my son for the first time, but of the emotional experience of watching my wife do what was needed, what ever was needed, for his arrival to happen. It made me feel both strong, that I was who she needed to be there for the process, and so incredibly weak, knowing I myself, deep down, did not have what she had to do so much for another person. I could never have given as she did.
I’ve been spending a lot of time at three in the morning just Weston and me. Feeling an infant’s heart beat against your body in the darkness while listening only to his irregular breathing is an incredible launching pad into winding avenues of analytical thought. Not surprising to those who know me, these nights of contemplation have largely been about painting.
It may seem to some there would be larger, grander things to think about then that, things concerning the state of the world my son was born into or even my own ability to be a father. And those things have had their time on the thinking block. But painting has been the main topic of choice.
The reason is, watching my wife become so completely unselfish to give life to another made me want to be a better person. There is only one way I know to do that. See, I don’t believe painting is just something you do to create decoration or as something to do to relax or as a hobby. I don’t believe it is something you do just to create controversy or to be the one who created something new for the world to see. I believe, personally, that painting is prayer. It is prayer to the poetry of the unknown, or more so, the unknowable.
When I see a great painting, whether in a museum or a café, I feel I am seeing a microcosm of a true connection into something larger. I feel I am seeing the indescribable poetry that is underneath all human experience. Art for me is religion. We build museums that are like grand churches, but like grand churches, it is not the building that matters as much as what happens inside. To allow oneself to surrender to the unknown, to the undefined, is scary. For some, a church is where they feel safe doing so. For me, it is within the confines of a painted picture. Specifically painting because of the fact that every aspect of a painting has been created, each part a combination of many brush strokes formed by a combination of thoughts, reactions, and emotions. The act of painting is deeply ritualistic and regardless of subject, requires a dedication to time alone with ones own self.
I think about all this while holding my son because I know I cannot change the entire world alone. But I can better myself and hopefully to be as strong as the woman who gave my son life. The only way I know to do that is to pray harder and more complete, to make myself more vulnerable to the poetry of life, of the world around me, to the unknown, and then, try as I might, paint it to share.
The autumn season is coming to a close here in Wyoming. The colors are still in full in many places but it is winding down. I have been out sketching and designing three of the last five days. It has been wonderful. The thing is, I am designing nothing around the colors of autumn. I will admit that I am intimidated.
Autumn is such a fleeting moment, it is like trying to paint the magic of a first kiss with the love of your life, and not have it come across as simply romanticized mush. I have been looking at paintings of autumn as well, finding many that are beautiful, but nothing really threw me across the room until I stumbled across the painting by Wolf Kahn titled “White Trunks”.
I could not summon up the career or work of Kahn better then his gallery does, so here is a quote from Ameringer and Yohe:
The unique blend of Realism and the formal discipline of Color Field painting sets the work of Wolf Kahn apart. Kahn is an artist who embodies the synthesis of his modern abstract training with Hans Hofmann, with the palette of Matisse, Rothko’s sweeping bands of color, and the atmospheric qualities of American Impressionism. It is precisely this fusion of color, spontaneity and representation that has produced such a rich and expressive body of work.
I am drawn to Wolf Kahn’s work when I need a moment of quiet that isn’t too quiet. That may sound strange, but quiet has various textures. There is the quiet of snowfall – that subtle sweeping sound that comes out only when the wind is absent. There is the quiet of a sleeping house – the quiet of breathing and dreaming. There is the quiet of reading and cooking, the quiet of tension and anger, the quiet of love. We are, in this modern age, not very good at letting these various tones of quiet have their moments. I find I need them, and when they are not present in my everyday life, I seek them out in paintings. For extreme quiet I go to the paintings of the River Thames by James Whistler. For slight tension in the quiet I go to George Inness. For the quiet of dreams it is Thomas Dewing and for mystery it is Vilhelm Hammershio and later temperas by Andrew Wyeth. But for quiet that is loud, it is Wolf Kahn.
You know the sound. A perfect example comes straight from the autumn season: when the trees are clapping for the end of the season, as if they are celebrating yet another great summer, an entire grove gently scrapping their dry leaves together. Kahn’s painting “White Trunks” is that sound for me. There are no leaves in the image, but I could hear the clapping as soon as I saw it. It was the exact tone of quiet I needed, the exact feeling of autumn I have been experiencing. Sometimes I need to set out and capture it myself, other times I need to find it captured by others.
I spend a lot of time Googling my favorite painters. I do this searching for any work I have not yet seen. Doing this the other night instead of going to bed, I came across this picture of a Johannes S. Kjarval painting in the place where he painted it in North Eastern Iceland.
What draws me to Kjarval’s work is how few limits he put on himself. He was not a landscape, portrait, abstract or mythical painter. He was an artist who painted in all these styles and more. He painted what ever came over him that he felt was true to his life in his surroundings at that time. That ability to remain true to oneself instead of to things such as demand, cliental, popularity, success or even to what is considered new and exciting is very admirable. His work is seen as vital to the people of Iceland because he created through his own passion a visual vocabulary that spoke more then words were capable of about the live one lives in the Icelandic terrain. He created paintings that put in images what the other arts could not. Kjarval did this through dedication to his own senses.
Now – I am going to leave this silly computer behind, go to my studio to attempt to do the same. I am also going to forget about Kjarval. I am going to forget about all of them who have painted before me, all who are painting now. I am going to go work. Whether I make anything important, anything that speaks the way Kjarval’s vast body of work does, is not what matters. As Andrew Wyeth said, “Artists today think of everything they do as a work of art. It is important to forget about what you are doing – then a work of art may happen.”
I have come across many amazing paintings in my late-night Google-athons. What I have not come across is a way to make up the time I am not spending in my own studio. Studying is very important, in my opinion, but working is essential.
It has happened billions of times to billions of people. The experience is not new. It does not diminish it, though, because it is new to me. Well, will be new to me when it happens, when my wife Kate gives birth to our first child next March. To say I am excited is to not know a word more powerful. I am ________ – fill in the blank. All the positive words work.
I keep thinking back to when I first discovered all the things that I cherish in my life now – knowing I am about to get to watch my own child go through the process of discovery, their own process of choosing that which they keep in their soul and use to define who they are. I remember the first time I ever sat and watched a sunset completely, wondering if it went out, not understanding the roundness of the earth. I remember the first time I stared up into a tree at all the branches and the space between each. I remember thinking bullets would not go through blankets and that if I slept with a quilt on me, even in the summers, the bad guys could not shoot me while I slept. I remember the fist time I ever ate French Onion Soup at a fancy restaurant, how my eyes lit up at the salty, nutty taste. I remember the first time I heard Pink Floyd, Louis Armstrong, Philip Glass, Sigur Ros, but more so, the first time I sat alone with my lights out and listened to the entire Ninth Symphony by Beethoven, all 70 plus minutes of it. I remember seeing “The Thin Red Line” for the first time and afterwards writing and writing and writing – nonsensical things that poured out of me, my hands not being able to keep up. I remember sitting as a child in a beanbag chair looking at a book on van Gogh and thinking – “Man, this is what I am going to” and then checking out book after book on art history. I collected print catalogues on wildlife artists from a local frame shop and cut out my favorites. I had one file specifically for Robert Bateman’s paintings. Bateman lead me to Andrew Wyeth, who lead me to all of art history. I remember the day my parents lead me to the basement to show me the art studio they had put up for me while I was at a friends house. I remember taking the clock down and hiding it because time was a threat to me, it was a reminder of sleep and school and friends and eating and all the things that stopped me from painting. I remember the first time I saw a Monet in person, the first Whistler, Wyeth, Kjarval, Klimt, Krasner. I remember the first time I felt I had fallen in love, a beautiful girl in high school who had enough creative energy to fill a nation. I remember the first time I did fall in love, the first time I saw my wife, and the first date and the first time I asked her what she thought of our relationship, which was on the second date.
Art is life. It is all of it. It is the questions and the answers, the choices and the decisions. It is the best taste you have ever had and is the face you make when you first taste a lemon. It is pain and war and suffering and love and giving and sacrifice. It is movement and stillness and sound and silence. It is all of it encased in the feeling of having to do it with out understanding why.
I am so excited about this next phase in my life, getting to share all that I have taken in with such a blank slate. Selfishly, though, I am more excited about what they will share with me. I can not wait to see all of this, this whole big, incredible world, again, for the first time, through their eyes.
I had this goal set in my mind to be starting a new landscape painting every ten to twelve days. Keep the canvas’ smaller, go out and find the location, do the prep work in the field and then hammer them out back in the studio. I didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about them. I wanted to react and then paint. I wanted the paint to be applied with no hint of delicacy, no soft brushstrokes like my crane painting. I wanted to explode creatively.
Then I started a 34 x 50 inch canvas as my first for the series, a design of a place I visited three times in early May to do sketches. It was a field with a small pond lined with trees that reflected perfectly. I had it designed so that the trees created an abstract series of lines from the right across most of the canvas going left until you came to a break where the trees in the distance were more distinct. Then I spent six weeks working and reworking and reworking. I spent the prime days of the valley being in the green of summer working on this first of what was supposed to be many landscapes. And then, after all that time battling the image, I lost. I threw the painting away. All that time spent was gone.
Now, looking back, I was trying to do too many things in one painting. I was trying to put contrasting colors together to create tension in a painting of a soothing landscape. It had a strange feeling to it, an uncomfortable feeling. So . . . I had to toss it out. I immediately restretched the frame to create a new canvas, gessoed it and put the canvas back in my pile.
I knew if I spent time thinking about it, I would get upset. I finished the other painting I had started in the spring and then went straight to the field and started a new piece. Now, a month after throwing the painting away, I have four new paintings started and a fifth designed. I have been going out when ever I have the desire to and I start a new one, defying my own rule that I can not have more then three landscapes going at once.
What I learned from the time I spent on the painting I tossed out was that I need to be better focused, more confident and to admit when it is not working. I learned that six weeks spent on something that didn’t work does not mean I did not learn during those six weeks. This is not the first time I have learned this. I throw paintings away every year. But this year I learned another leason: you can plan ahead but that does not mean things are going to go as planned.
Sounds simple, right? Common sense in life. We only have so much control. When it comes to something like painting, though, I had it in my head that I controlled it. I have been painting regularly now for twenty years, since I was thirteen. I should have complete control over my work but I learned I do not. For all the canvas’ that turn out exactly how I imagine them, a few go the other direction. And as much as that can be frustrating beyond believe, it is a part of the process.
I recently revisited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts with my wife and mother-in-law. It is an incredible museum with a wide range of styles and periods represented in their collection. We stopped by on the way to the airport with only two hours to spend in the museum and I had a mission before we arrived: to study the color layering of Maurice Prendergast.
Maurice Prendergast was an American painter who painted in both watercolor and oil. His oil paintings were painted in a manner that made them look like mosaics and were layered and layered with beautiful, thick color. His subject matter was almost exclusively outdoor park scenes filled with park-goers and he treated this with no opinion or judgement. His paintings were not historical in context or even romantic. They were a collection of colors and shapes placed on the canvas in such a way that one recognized the subject but not enough to have a relationship with individual parts of the image. The paintings were and are beautiful, whimsical, abstract and simply there for the pleasure of looking.
I have always been drawn to his work. The Milwaukee Art Museum also has an impressive painting of his called Picnic By the Sea. Being a member of the museum while living in Milwaukee, I often stopped by to simply see that painting and then would leave again. I loved how it felt both modern and antique, as if it was a piece of pottery from another time and place but created with the freedom of coloring only known in the last few hundred years.
I just finished my latest crane painting. It is the third in the series to be finished and puts my count towards the 1,000 cranes at 419. The next in the crane series is already designed and drawn on canvas and sitting on my easel for large canvas’. In the mean time, while letting my eyes and mind rest from painting origami cranes over and over and over again, I have returned to my other easels to work on paintings of the Wyoming landscape. The crane paintings are in a style I have been working in for nearly two decades now. It is established and in my skin. I know it and can simply sit down and work. The Wyoming landscape paintings are not that way for me. The whole thing started, as I have stated before, with my visit to Iceland and seeing the work of Johannes S. Kjarval and how he captured the real feeling of Iceland and not just the way the landscape looks. That is what I was after and am still in ‘training’ to capture. I feel I have made progress, but with the last landscape I finished, I started to become more interested in both the finished landscape and the paint application to create it. I have been looking at a lot of artists, from painters like Gustave Klimt to Pierre Bonnard, but I keep being drawn back to Prendergast. Getting to see his painting in person right before returning to my days in the field was very helpful.
I do not look at other painters to steal ideas but use their paintings almost like permission slips. Starting out with painting wildlife as a young kid, I have always looked for permission to go further. That is where art history has been my greatest guide. I look at the work of someone like Prendergast and think ‘Hell, lets use more paint. Lets dig into it more. Lets push further.’ That does not mean that I find any style of painting to be more advanced then another. It means simply that I still have a deep well I feel I have only started to dip into. The need to continue going in further, finding more, seeing and feeling more, creating more, only gets stronger with each piece I finish. The want to stretch here and there is granted permission to do so when looking through a museum or through my collection of books. Even if the change in my approach is so subtle only I would notice it, it feels big and important and exciting.
Unless of course, I fail. Then I just blame Prendergast for giving me permission to begin with!
I have my own specific approach to museums and galleries. I look with two mind-sets, one as a lover of painting and one as a painter myself who learns from art history. This means I tend to go through shows twice. Usually I will do this on one visit, first going through the show or area of the museum and taking in what I respond to, then on the second go-round, standing and studying and taking notes. I have filled two small notebooks in the last two years with my museum visits, including my visit to Amsterdam and the Van Gogh Museum this past April. There was an exhibit titled “Dreams of Nature: Symbolism from Van Gogh to Kandinsky” filled with Scandinavian artist’s work that I studied for my senior thesis, work I have since become greatly addicted to. I went through the exhibit twice with my wife and took in what I needed to absorb. But the days that followed, I could not stop thinking about how incredible it was that all those Scandinavian paintings where in one country at one time, and I was there as well. The “Dreams of Nature” exhibit warranted standing in line and paying twice to take in for a third time.
One painting in particular had me transfixed. Fernand Khnopff’s “In Bruges. A Portal”. I pour over ever book I can get my hands on of works by Harald Scholberg, Edvard Munch, Vilhelm Hammershoi and Eugene Jansson – all four with work in the exhibit. Yet, it was the work of this artist I knew very little about that had my attention. This is why I love going to museums. There is always more to discover.
“In Bruges. A Portal” is a smaller painting of a courtyard with in a cathedral. It is painted with mainly browns, yellows and rich black. It has a large open area in the foreground that leads to a richly detailed entrance way that towers over the courtyard. That areahad such a strange feeling to me with its emptiness in the glowing hour of yellow light. Khnopff paints softly, never any harsh light or abrupt lines. His work is detailed in select parts, the other remaining unfocused. He gives little for clues as to where your attention should be so as a viewer, you float across his images and get caught on what ever grabs you. It is almost overly calming.
I stood for a good twenty minutes (I know because I was listening to a symphony by Philip Glass and the entire first movement went by while I stood in one place) and was transfixed. I would try to analyze the painting but my mind would slowly go blank again and I would just be standing there looking. I made next to no notes.
The opposite happened to me the year before at the Guggenheim in New York City. The exhibit was called “The Great Upheaval: Modern Art from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910-1918″. If you have never been to the Guggenheim, it is the incredible spiral building created by Frank Lloyd Wright. I loved many pieces in this exhibit, but the one I returned to many times, walking back up the spiral, leaving, then back up again, was the second to last painting to the top. I walked a few miles that day returning to see this piece.
It was Ego Scheile’s “Portrait of Johann Harms” from 1916. It is a larger painting and again, is a painting of largely brown, yellow and gray, with some rich under painting in red. The painting has a great weight to it, as if all of life has pushed this man, who was Sheile’s father-in-law, down into that chair. His feet are cut off, as if to say he is stationary now in his older age. The texture of his face and hands, his coat and pants, are created with little shapes of color whose edges bleed into the next little shape. This painting, I wrote and wrote and wrote. The angle he is sitting in, the texture of the back ground, the lack of any sense of light, the under-paint allowed to show through in the skin – all wonderful things that made my mind race.
It surprises me sometimes what I am drawn to and for what reason. With Khnopff, I was taken to a place with out thought, a vacation to a mysterious mindset I could not really explain. With Schiele, I was given a manifest on painting emotion, vulnerability, and time. Both were great rewards for simply being a viewer.
I just returned from a trip to Paris and Amsterdam with my wife. We had an amazing time. And I am not using the word ‘amazing’ lightly. We both returned feeling full. I don’t know how to describe it any other way. Full. Of life, of love, of ideas and passions and beauty, so much beauty. Paris it self is a work of art, let alone the endless galleries and museums filled with paintings and sculpture, prints and drawings, tapestries and ceramics.
We visited seven art museums in total, some for only an hour or two, others for more then half the day. I purchased as many books as I could fit in my suitcase with out going over weight (seven books! – two not in English just to have the images of the paintings). I saw paintings in person I have been studying for years. Seeing the actual brush strokes in person, there right in front of me, paintings that I keep inside of me and see in my mind when ever I need to see them, was almost surreal. I was like seeing ghosts. These things were not supposed to REALLY exist.
They were just images in books I studied and loved. But they do exist and standing in front of them was humbling. The same thought kept coming to me as I walked the various halls of various museums: did these artists know that what they were creating would have such lives to them? We saw a performance of Mozart’s Requiem in the oldest church in Paris, Saint Germain Des Pres, and the same thought was in my mind. Did they set out to make something great or did they make something and it turned out to be great? Is there a difference?
I have had nearly three weeks off from my studio – with getting ready for the trip and the actual time of the trip – and have four unfinished canvas’ sitting around. One is 74″ x 110″ and has been in progress since 2007 (drawing and designing for years, painting for only a half of ayear now). I am filled with so much energy and excitement, wanting to take all I internalized in Paris and push it through the brush onto the canvas, but I will wait. I must finish the other four first. I must finish the other bursts of excitement that started each of those canvas’. Until then, I will keep letting all the paintings I already knew and ones I just discovered keep floating around in my mind, singing to me like the great passages in Mozart’s Requiem.
I have no idea if this will reach anybody. I guess that is the age we live in – we pray aloud and hope someone hears it – and from my experience with reading blogs, we hope to feel connected with a stranger while reading it. We have become a more separated society, as many have said, in our choosing of technology over personal interaction – but maybe only to those closest to us. We may no longer write the type of letters Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo – but we write them now to the vast universe of the internet, posting these writings and letting the reader stumble upon them themselves.
While sitting at my easel one afternoon thinking about this, I decided that if I was going to do this, have a blog, I was going to do it in a manner that allowed me to be completely open. I was not going to write about painting and the world of art from the perspective of a critic or from a style-specific painter – I was not going to point to this and say it is and point to that and say it is not. I decided that I was going to do this similar to Vincent and Theo – that I was going to treat this the same way I treat the letters I write to my friend Dan who is a painter and choreographer. He is not my brother by blood – but has shared moments with me that make me know he is my brother by brush. I can write to him the excitement I feel when one color placed next to another creates exactly what I was hoping for. I can write to him my need for art history, how it wells up in me, like the feeling of a long period without water, and I have to get to a book and find a painting that wows me.
Painting is a spiritual thing for me. Life is a glaring question and I see art and music and religion and athleticism as all different pieces of fabric sewn into a quilt larger then possible to imagine that shields us from that glare. We use these things to feel comfort within the question of life. There is not one person who does not love painting. Not one. They may not know which painting they love, they may not have discovered it yet – but they do love it. Just as I believe everybody loves athleticism, the feel of conquering something that stood before us, whether that was another team or a goal personally set. And I am no athlete. Seriously.
Everyone loves painting. Whether it is a tour-de-force of emotion by Munch, a quiet landscape by Inness, a symbolic interior by Wyeth, or a symphonic weaving of texture and color by Krasner – there is something for everyone. It is why every gallery of painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has viewers standing before something.
So – this is how I will approach this blog, as a letter to Dan.
I have been focusing my attention in my studio lately on three new paintings that are a part of my Crane Series, with breaks here and there to build canvas’ and go out in the field to do sketches, looking for my next winter painting.
We have not had the same incredible amount of snowfall here in Wyoming as we did last year. I had hoped for trees dripping with bows weighed down by snow, of large expanses of rocky terrain smoothed to slight lumps of blue, or earth-carving rivers reduced down to abstract lines across a white horizon. This has not happened.
This is probably for the better because instead of trekking through the snow with sketchbook and canvas in tow, I have stayed in the studio working on the large paintings I had started during the autumn season.
Regardless, it has had me thinking about paintings of winter and there is no artist who has better captured the cold, harsh beauty of winter better then Lawren Harris.
Lawren Harris was a member of the Group of Seven, an early twentieth century society of painters in Canada. He and the other members created a large array of paintings of their native country, working to create a style distinct and unique. He believed strongly that a country that ignored the arts left no record of itself worth preserving. What a crazy idea, I know.
Harris’ paintings of winter are quiet, cold and feel free of the weight of time. They are filled with beautiful colors, sharp, curved lines and wonderful paint application.
I have poured over my books on the Group of Seven for nearly a decade now but have not had the luxury of seeing any of their work in person. But, when we get a snowfall as heavy as every snowfall was last winter, I walk through the Wyoming landscape and feel like Lawren Harris’ work is all around me.