Sarra monument

monument, 56″x 72″, oil on canvas, 2014

Tonight we are expecting to receive between 5 and 8 inches of snow, and it is in the context of this unusually long and cold winter that I have finished this long and cold painting, monument.  But the painting started under different circumstances two years ago when we had a rather warm and snowless winter.  In February of 2012 we had a single significant snowfall, and a day or so later the temperatures rose sufficiently to melt it away.  As I drove past Metcalfe Park on the day of the melt I saw a large snowball slumped in the middle of a muddy field.  Grass and leaves protruded from the snowy mass.  It was a striking image, and I kept thinking about it for the next few days.  At some point this meditation on the memory became a call to action, and I made this sketch of the scene as I remembered it:

snowball study (memory), 8.25" x 11.5", pencil on paper, 2012

snowball study (memory), 8.25″ x 11.5″, pencil on paper, 2012

Having made the sketch, I began to rework the composition directly on the canvas.  As the snowball began to take shape as a stark contrast to the muddy field of dormant grass, I became painfully aware of the painting’s limitations when it came to expressing important aspects of the context that had qualified my initial experience.  The object appeared so strongly dislocated from its season that it took on what seemed to me as an inseparable association with Andy Goldsworthy’s Midsummer Snowballs.  I added a few patches of snow to reclaim a more plausible scene.  Eventually more snow fell in the world that I was creating, and although it pulled the image farther from my actual experience it had the ultimate effect of establishing a more credible stage upon which other events might unfold.  Here’s an image of the painting in September, before so many of the characters were removed from the scene:

studio view of monument, September 2013

studio view of monument, September 2013

For many people, even many artists, it may seem strange to start making a picture without a clear vision of what the final image (and meaning) will be.  In my process this is a relatively normal thing.  I rely upon an inspiration to get things started, but it is the unanswered questions and unforeseen problems that drive the work.  The finished painting is as much a product of surprise and discovery as anything else.  It requires that I be willing to experiment by adding and removing elements.  The process is inefficient but rewarding.  The painting begins to accumulate histories, and the surface becomes a tangle of what was and what is.  Some of these events leave marks of discernible character, others become inscrutable.  This piece required a lot of “un-painting”.  I was cutting down trees, knocking down buildings, rolling in clouds, and dropping snow in order to find that moment where the painting fully contained the justification for its own existence.

glove study, 11" x 15", pastel on paper, 2013

glove study, 11″ x 15″, pastel on paper, 2013.  This was one of the objects that I thought might be incorporated into the painting, but it never made the cut.

It was at this point that the object of my painting shifted from subject to stage and orchestrated the completion of the piece.  As the atmospheric silence overtook the painting, it brought me back to a childhood memory.  It was winter in Maryland, and my parents had taken me out to shop for boots.  I was probably about nine years old.  It was snowing furiously, and on the way home our vehicle stalled in the left lane on a busy road.  Before long we were struck, by another vehicle, and then that vehicle, too, was struck due to the poor visibility and accumulation of snow on the ground.  It was late at night by the time my older brother was able to walk from our house to the accident scene in order to escort me home.  As we set off, the transition was magical and immediate.  We crossed over into the ball field between the high school and the elementary school, and the light/noise/stress of the road was replaced by muffled stillness and by calm.  The world seemed lit from within as we high-stepped through the snow and across that field.  It was snowing hard enough that as we gained the middle of the field it became a world without edges, a room defined by its thick floor and the soft collapse of its ceiling.  Perhaps it was this semblance of privacy, this feeling of being lost in a  little piece of wilderness while still in the midst of the metropolis. Perhaps the scene presented a blank canvas so compelling, so self-evident that it demanded action even from a child.  Perhaps we were just suffering from full bladders.  Whatever the reason, we took that opportunity to draw with streams of our steaming medium in the snow.

It would have been impossible for me to interpret that act as anything but necessary at the time.  It was visceral and unpremeditated.  But as I now reflect upon that moment I see it as characterizing much of my life’s experience with the landscape, with family, and with the action of creation that I define today as “art making”.  In this painting a signature appears with a vandal’s brazen delight.  It claims the land like a flag planted in soil already bearing evidence of another’s passage.  It is an expression of desire and of necessity, acutely aware of its ethical dilemmas.   Philip Guston described this problem during a conversation with Joseph Ablow in 1966 while describing what he saw as the revolutionary impulse of the New York School.  He said, “…you felt as if you were driven into a corner, against the wall with no place to stand, just the place you occupied, as if the act of painting itself was not making a picture– there are plenty of pictures in the world, why clutter up the world with pictures– it was as if you had to prove to yourself that truly the act of creation was still possible.”


Anyone working mindfully within a tradition faces the challenge of setting themselves apart from their influences, of paying homage without appearing derivative.  Being an admirer of Giorgio Morandi’s work, last year I started a project that engages his still life paintings by way of woodworking.  I’ve visited the reproduction of his studio in the Museo Morandi in Bologna, and one of the things that struck me was the specificity and singularity of the objects that he was arranging and observing for his paintings.  Bottles were painted either inside or outside, labels on boxes were painted over, dust was allowed to collect.  The personalities that he was tamping down were further suppressed through the act of painting.  These aren’s so much collections of individuals as they are pieces of a puzzle, and the collective mass has a unity that resonates with the care and efficiency that exudes precision and purpose.

Postcard photograph of objects in the studio, Museo Morandi, Bologna

I wondered if these seemingly innocuous objects could be extracted from the group context and reinvested with value as an individual.  The way I went about it was to turn wooden objects on the lathe.  The objects are “similar” rather than precise copies of those found in the paintings, and this allows shifts in scale to equate with shifts in vision or attention.  Because they are meant to be seen individually, the objects are not subject to direct comparison.  One of the hazards of this venture became readily apparent– the possibility that the objects would slip back into their utilitarian niche so tightly as to be insignificant or unrecognizable as objects of art.  To help ward this off, I have been using green wood and have not been hollowing out the forms.  They keep the appearance of the vessel without actually becoming one, and as the wood dries it develops distinctive cracks.  The one thing they still manage to contain is information, since the group is developing acting as an index of local species.  This gets involved with ideas that are of interest to me in my painting and my collection of artificial plants– the power of illusion to inform but not supply, a territory of recognition kept off balance by a shifting definition of “usefulness”.

vase (black walnut), 2013

bottle (cherry), 2013

bottle (tulip magnolia), 2013

bottle (black oak root), 2013

memory and usefulness in red oak

Some friends had to remove a large pin oak from their back yard, as it was declining and would soon pose a hazard to their house.  They were sectioning most of the large branches and upper trunk for firewood, but were interested when I mentioned the possibility of milling some of the trunk for use in something that would last longer.  So began our adventure of brainstorming and design work, which appears to be leading us toward a coffee table and a console made from the quarter-sawn lumber.  Here are a few photos showing the transition from the original trunk to fresh sawn lumber.  The wood is currently air drying, but will be finished in a kiln this fall.

Here's the log set up on the portable mill, ready for the first cut.

When quarter-sawn, the oak reveals its striking medullar rays. There is a strong contrast between heart and sap wood, and some interesting irregularities within this wood.

We ended up with a generous stack of select cuts, most of which is 4/4 (one inch thick) stock. I kept a few pieces at 8/4 in order to have options for legs and structural members.

I'll be book matching consecutive cuts for the tops, perhaps maintaining a natural edge or two.

I’m not typically a big fan of red oak, but this one was cut effectively to reveal good flecking and a few pleasant surprises in color variation.  Last year I found a red oak crotch piece where two trunks had grown almost parallel to each other for several feet, and the grain went wild along the merging edges.  I turned two shallow bowls out of it, one of which is pictured below.

natural edge red oak bowl, 2013 (private collection)

detail of the burl, spalting, and bark inclusion

Opening a piece of wood is like unwrapping a present.  Further cutting, surfacing, and construction reveal qualities that shape meaning through function and aesthetic experience.  When this is coupled with a memory of the raw materials, a personal history that preceded the wood’s cultural usefulness, it presents a unique opportunity for a living memorial– one that can maintain vitality and relevance in daily life instead of sliding ever deeper into a mysterious past.

Regional Arts Commission Artist Support Grant

I was excited to learn that I received one of the Regional Arts Commission’s Artist Support Grants this summer.  My proposal was a request for funds to purchase a large-capacity band saw for use in re-sawing some of the reclaimed and green wood that I have been using so much lately.  Can’t wait to purchase the tool and seeing what takes shape in the studio.  Many thanks to RAC for so generously and effectively supporting the arts in the Midwest.  25 out of 185 applicants received funding– here is a list of the winners and a brief description of their project proposals:

July 1, 2013: Spring/Summer 2013 RAC ARTISTS SUPPORT GRANTS

Regional Arts Commission (RAC) Artists Support Grants are designed to provide direct funds for artists’ projects, needs, and creative opportunities in all disciplines. Direct support enables diverse artists of all disciplines to advance their careers. It is designed to be flexible and accessible and to encourage creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship and sustained commitment to artistic work. The awards to 25 artists for the Spring/Summer round ranged from $640 to $3000.

Alec Herschman (Literature) Published poet producing first book length poetry project and website. Funds for time and space to complete project.

Amy Loui (Theater) Attending classes at the International Theatre Lab in Austria with master theatre director Sergei Ostrenko in a specific technique to advance her work as an actor.

Bill Perry (Visual Art – Ceramics) Purchasing kiln and set-up materials in his studio for bird sanctuary project as well as advancing his other ceramic work.

Carlie Trosclair (Visual Art – Installation) First New York exhibition – Materials and expenses for a new site-specific installation in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) area gallery.

Cat Mahari Johnson (Dance) Choreography and multi-media production of “the floor” based on the African American tradition of stepping.

Daniel Fishback (Visual Art – Painting) Painting workshops with master artist Todd Williams in Arkansas as well some supplies and materials.

Daniel John Kelly (Theater) Acquisition of green screen for video production projects with St. Louis students studying Shakespeare.

Denise Ward Brown (Visual Art – Installation) Production, equipment, and documentation about Civil War era soldiers re-interned at Jefferson Barracks using “Ken Burns” technique for film and art installations as well as for integration with a book about use of protective charms in African/African American cultures.

Grace Hong (Visual Art – Interactive) Materials, space, and equipment for creating an interactive arts project based on a game titled “ESC: Running into the Present.”

Ilene Berman (Visual Art – Installation) Design and fabrication of mobile art studio north of Grand Center called Room13 Delmar that is designed to engage communities.

JaNae Contag (Visual Art – Film/Video) Documenting (and transforming through film) vacant spaces in suburban and exurban American – particularly empty malls around the Midwest as “ghosts” of commerce.

Jessica Baran (Literature) Support for some of prize-winning writer’s travel expenses for her book tour for her recently published book of poetry, “Equivalents.”

John Sarra (Visual Art – Wood) Sculptor acquiring special saw as a way to increase capacity for using reclaimed wood in his work.

Joseph LaMarque (Visual Art – Multi) Artist will acquire metal sculpting equipment as well as instruction in its use adding to his skill set as a sculptor.

Kirk Hanser (Music – classical) Accomplished musician – part of classical guitar duo (Hanser- McClellan Guitar Duo) – will use funds for October 2013 European tour. He will play in concert as well as instruct in Austria, Germany and France.

Liam Cassidy (Multi-media – sound) Sound equipment for “Cheap Fun” – an innovative, artist- driven podcast featuring short stories.

Lois Ingrum (Visual Art – Photography) Equipment and production of continuing documentation of grassroots memorials as well as helping to expand exhibition capabilities.

Marilyn Robinson (Visual Art – Photography) Production of a DVD of documentation of Super Sunday celebrations in NOLA. These celebrate the uniquely New Orleans tradition of “Black Indians” – African American social/neighborhood clubs that create elaborate costumes for parading.

Mario Farwell (Music + Theater) Composing and production of new work – an original musical called “Starfest.”

Noah Kirby (Visual Art – Sculpture) Time, space & materials for new body of large scale collaborative sculptures for exhibition at National Ornamental Metals Museum (Memphis) in February 2014.

Rebecca Ormand (Visual Art – Film) Production of multi-media film using 3D and 2D techniques. Footage of St. Louis historic sites and building are the theme.

Robert Longyear (Visual Art – Metal/Multi) Materials and expenses for creating new body of work for exhibition at Indiana State Galleries.

Rosalind Early (Literature) Researching and creating writing pieces documenting the history of an Afro-Caribbean traditional festival called Odunde that has taken place in Philadelphia.

Sarah Paulsen (Visual Art – Animation) Stop-motion animation film production – examining all sides of the events leading up to and in the aftermath of Kirkwood City Council shooting. Working in collaboration with a group of “unintentional women activists” brought together after the death of Councilwoman Connie Karr.

Stephen Peirick (Theater) First production of new full length play “Four Sugars.”
The next round for RAC Artists Support Grants opens September 9 with an October 15 deadline.

All submissions are through . For more information, 314/863-5811.