Portrait of the Musician as an Artist
Lately I’ve been posting more paintings than songs on social media, and as most people know me as a musician, maybe it’s time I wrote a bit about me and Art. We go way back, but I'll pick up from when I was maybe 15. To escape the heat and humidity of summer days in Washington, DC, I used to head downtown to wander air conditioned temples of art like the National Gallery, the Freer, and the Hirschhorn; a free, informal art history education. I was especially drawn to the wit and playfulness of Kurt Schwitters, the Dadaists, Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenburg, the formal puzzle-solving of Richard Diebenkorn, and to Asian art. I still am.
At Sarah Lawrence College I studied painting and printmaking with Marcia Hafif and Ansei Uchima. When I could afford it, I took the train into the city to the Met and the galleries. One Summer, jobless and desperate, I walked door to door in my parents' town in Maine, offering to make pen and ink drawings of people's homes. I used one of my parents' house as a sample and got a good half dozen commissions. That same Summer a painting, “Two Cars on Road,” was accepted at Maine Coast Artists’ juried group show.
Pen and ink sketch of my parents' house, 1981
"tomb" (proof) etching, 1981
A few years after college, shortly after I moved from Brooklyn to New Hampshire, a generous artist friend, Jonas Gerard, offered to share his studio space in an old riverfront mill, free of charge. My work developed a lot during this period, and opened up to include three dimensional elements. A lifelong appreciation of historic buildings, signage, and fading Americana showed itself in a series of imagined miniature “facades,” with architectural elements on painted plaster, wood, and metal surfaces.
"Fire Tower," collection Carlo Adinolfi (1991?)
"MOTEL" tar and plaster on wood, collection Mark Jaster & Sabrina Mandell (date unknown)
I had my first solo show at the Kimball-Jenkins Estate in Concord, NH (1991?) and sold several pieces, but by the mid-90s I was both performing arts department head at a small school and playing with bands several nights a week. I decided to stop painting. As I used to say, I got calls from people who wanted my music, but never got a call from anyone asking for art. And in contrast with the collaborative experience of playing music, I'd been finding the long hours alone staring at an object increasingly angsty. But I still needed an outlet for my love of color, form and visual beauty, and found it designing sets for the many high school plays I directed. I hated the flat, cheap look of typical high school productions, and I worked hard to create evocative stage environments that would please audiences but also inspire actors and crew to deepen their attention to the work. And set construction and scenic painting were communal events, with students, adult volunteers, and, always, snacks! I also enjoyed striking sets after the last performance and seeing the stage painted black again, ready for whatever was next.
Closeup, set design for experimental theater production Orphans of Morpheus, 2012)
Set design, The Government Inspector, Sant Bani School, 2012
However, in my journals, a habit which I have steadily kept up since high school, I continued to leaven an endless flow of words with the occasional collage, drawing, painting. It was this work that I drew from when I returned in earnest to making art.
page from journal, 1998
"Deep Sea Orbit," journal page, 2016
In 2017 my wife and I moved to Düsseldorf, Germany. With no way at first to make music–for months the shipment with my instruments didn’t even arrive–I started making small pieces at the dining room table; work that in the past would have been confined to the pages of journals. And I rediscovered pleasure in painting. My approach had become like what I love playing jazz–a way of working dependent on a sense of play, experimentation, and improvisation. By Spring of 2019, I had enough new work to mount a show, and while briefly back in the US, working with Happenstance Theater, I had modest solo shows in the galleries of two theaters in Baltimore and Washington.
"Untitled," mixed media on paper, 2017.
In 2019 I moved to Florence, Italy and an even smaller living space, but I took over our tiny loft and have been working steadily there since well before the Covid-19 quarantine. This work is noticeably urban–busy, crowded, hyperactive. We are clearly no longer in rural New England. And I see elements of Florence slipping into recent work–not just Italian words on collage scraps, but also references to Renaissance architecture: steps, arches, walls, elements of forced perspective, and well-worn surface textures.
Often starting with pieces torn from the posters that get put up around the city (I only use ones whose advertised events have already passed or that are already torn), I begin to work without any plan. It’s an aesthetic board game with few rules, in which each move I make challenges me to consider my next move; a long game of trial and error, selection, moving and removing, painting over. The object of the game is to arrive at a point of almost balance, when the many elements, though still competing for space, for air, for the eye of the viewer, are willing to settle into amicable restlessness. Just as in improvising jazz, familiar or signature motifs or riffs reappear with regularity, but also as in playing jazz, the process is very much about collaboration–reacting in the moment, only in this case not with other musicians but materials, color, shapes, lines, and with my own unconscious. My joy is in the surprises. And I hope that, just as the energy of live music performances can almost be captured in recordings, some of the positive energies involved in creating these paintings are captured–and revealed–through them.
My current home studio, the loft in our rented one-bedroom in Florence, Italy.
Note poster pieces sorted by color taped to beam, and music stand for easel.
"D IO," 46x34 cm, mixed media on paper, 2020
"GENNAIO / 31 DICEMBRE / ANNO" mixed media on paper, diptych 16x26 inches 2020
[Postscript: In this time of extended quarantine (we're wrapping up our 7th week here in Italy, but who's counting, right?) I am thankful that without leaving the house, I have so much work I can do that I find meaningful and enjoyable: composing and practicing music, writing, meditating, and making art (and–full disclosure–also cooking, eating and sleeping). That I am able to do this work now, without interruption or distraction, is a gift that few are given, and for that reason I remain patient, though looking forward to the day when I can go out and play music again.]