There Was This One Bad Day…

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I woke up in a messy dorm room. My assigned roommate was a sheepish and sad lad from California who seemed to struggle with the new life that was thrust upon him; a kind and gentle young man, he was polite and terrified with the prospect of learning how to operate a washing machine. He told me about his horse, Sundance, and the life he had lived before being stuck in a dorm room with the likes of me.

Everybody adapts to life away from home differently, I guess.

It didn’t really matter on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was eighteen and I’d had been away from the home for less than a month, just like most of the other folks in the dorm. Unlike most of my dorm mates, I’d made the foolish decision to take early classes; everybody else liked the idea of being able to sleep-in until ten or eleven and built their schedules accordingly. There aren’t many people walking about campus at seven o’clock in the morning, but those that were about were carrying their heads between their shoulders. I found myself standing by a coffee cart outside of the student union, huddled with a few other people, listening to the radio, to the play-by-play of what was happening in New York. Only one tower had been hit at that time.

It was hard to conjugate Spanish verbs that morning.
My second class, calculus, had some students weeping over their pop quiz papers.

Young girls at the dorm that night, blonde teenagers with tight shorts that read ‘juicy’ or ‘U of A’ across the ass, were shouting among themselves that “we need to bomb them,” even though we hadn’t yet identified who “they” even were at that point. And while these groups of young ladies were talking retribution, all the young men in the dorm were quiet. We had all just signed our military draft paperwork in the previous months, right before applying for federal student aid. The gravity of the situation was a little different for the lads than it was for the ladies.

My buddy Newman, a Jewish kid from Manhattan with the palest skin and the largest red curly afro you’d ever seen, wasn’t wearing his usual smile. He was the guy who’d dig through that ridiculous mound of hair at a house gathering and pull out a joint to share with everybody. He’d never worked a square job in his life and he was always the life of the party. We sat with him in his room for hours, nibbling on stale pizza even though we weren’t that hungry, not really able to take our eyes off of the repeated footage on the television. The whole time, Newman tried to get friends and family, anybody from back home, on the phone. Cell towers were down and too many calls were traveling to Manhattan, so he just kept hitting redial, eyes dull and glassy and distant, all day long, staring at the fire on the television screen.

It was a bad day. I was reminded of a school project from fourth or fifth grade, when I was told to ask a family member where they were and what they remembered about the day John F. Kennedy was shot. I had the thought that this was that day for me – that some day in the future, I’d be telling my son or daughter where I was when I learned about the attack on the World Trade Center. My parents were just children when Kennedy was killed, not even ten years old, but they remember. Some things just stay with you, and I know I’ll never forget the feeling, the anchor in my stomach, the sadness that made me want to cry, even though I didn’t, hanging out with my shaken friends.

Not every day can be great, I suppose. Sadly, too many of our days end with images of needless horror funneled into our living rooms. School, concert, movie theater, and church shootings, bombings, assassinations, and gruesome rhetoric from politicians, pundits, and citizens alike. It’s easy to be frustrated, benumbed, and hateful. But these are always opportunities to learn, to grow more resilient, and to come together. The greatest result of the September 11th attack was watching a nation of three-hundred million people, probably for the last time in these past two decades, come together in support of one another, if even only for a few days.

“When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.”
~Dalai Lama

 

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Kill Your Television

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So there was this one day when we had a lot of spare time, a case of beer, a JEEP with a failing transmission, a .22 caliber rifle and a television set that I’d been spending way too much time trying to fix. Call it ‘capricious youth,’ but there’s something cathartic about driving out into the desert and firing a few rounds into a useless item that needs to be put down.

My lady and I had a similar experience last week when we wanted to shampoo the carpet before assembling our baby’s new crib in the soon-to-be nursery. After struggling for about an hour and spilling water & cleaning solution all over the house, it was clear that the machine needed to be put out of its misery. I would have enjoyed driving out to the mountain and delivering a genuine and honest execution, but who has the time anymore? Instead, it was a gangland assassination commensurate with the xerox machine scene from Office Space, in the parking lot outside of our townhouse.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to exhale some serious frustration.
My recommendation? Kill your television, not a person. Then make some art out of it.

Hidden Color And The Utility Of Art

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When I was at university, one of my mentors said something that has stayed with me. It was obvious to me the he realized how the photography program was utterly failing its students by providing zero instruction on career development, small business management, or information on how to navigate the gallery system. I had a sense that he was as disappointed with the department as I was (and continue to be), but it was equally obvious how passionate he was about the craft with the time and attention he paid to those students who demonstrated a genuine interest in fine art and photography.

As innocuous or even silly as it sounds, I remember him saying that “everything you make is a self portrait.”
Everything you make is a reflection of your sensibilities, your attitudes, your appreciations, and your conflicts.

I don’t know why, exactly, but that sentence had a marked impact on how I began to approach each new project. Rather than trying to make the most beautiful print, or try to imagine what my audience might want, I began to think of each painting, each photograph, each mono-print or lino-cut as a part of myself – a thumb-print on a skyscraper, small and forgettable, but unique – rather than a ‘product’ or an attempt to fulfill some arbitrary notion of what other people may value as great art. The tension between commerce and art has always existed, and compromises almost always need to be made in creative professions. But that doesn’t prevent the artist from taking time out of his day to make something in the privacy of his home or studio, make anything, for no other reason than he thinks it’s interesting or beautiful.

I liken the creative process to meditation. It’s where I find my center after a hard day. It has navigated me through troubled relationships. It has connected me to other people and helped create very fruitful and lasting relationships.

A frustrated piece is only ever the result of having an idea in your head, the vision of exactly how you want it to look when it’s complete, and getting to that point can be hard – sometimes impossible. But just as often, tinkering with a sketchbook or fooling around in the darkroom – having a glass of wine and slapping some paint onto a canvas when there is no pressure to achieve a specific goal – and the artist is free to improvise and embrace their own intuition and stream-of-consciousness. And that’s when real magic can happen.

Wasn’t it Picasso who said that every child is born an artist, the problem is how to remain one as we grow up?
I think there’s truth to that. Going to school, memorizing dates and spitting out correct answers for the test, learning the formula to a successful job interview, paying bills and raising children, taking the car into the shop and watching tragedy after tragedy unfold on the nightly news – these things can tamp-down our artistic impulses, distract us from our Selves.

Art is a magic trick. A therapy. A language without syntax. I absolutely love it.

Now do me a favor and try to enjoy this stupid picture of a glass bottle, will ya? And while you’re at it, think about picking up a paintbrush or photographing the sunset, making a collage out of old magazines or designing a scrap-book page to commemorate last Christmas – it certainly won’t hurt you. Find an excuse to smile, and enjoy your weekend.

With much love,

-joe

Patterns In The Blacktop

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From my earliest days in the darkroom, before the digital revolution, I started veering toward abstract compositions. It seemed so incredibly counter-intuitive, contradictory even, to sculpt abstractions from camera images. In the beginning, the camera was designed to be the most accurate method for re-creating images from the world around us; before the camera, we relied on drawn and painted images to reflect the world. The painter’s hands could be biased, however, but the cold gaze of a lensed machine promised to never lie.

As an example, photo-mechanical images brought the true horror of war to the public, rather than the glorified tableaux as depicted in works like Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s “Washington Crossing The Delaware” or Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading The People.” Scholars in the field of visual culture studies credit broadcast television for helping galvanize the American public against the Vietnam War; with images of dying young men being beamed nightly into American households, it helped foment an unprecedented anti-war attitude.

The camera also liberated the painterly arts, which had been preoccupied with attempts to reflect the real world. Once the camera proved it could make the most accurate portraits, the most detailed architectural studies, we begin to see the painterly arts fragment into impressionism, expressionism, cubism, die brucke, de stijl, and a multitude of other styles. If we look at the timeline, we’ll see that this revolution in painting began at almost the exact same time that Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre patented their photographic technologies in the mid-1800’s.

The truth is, though, that the camera can lie just as effectively as anything else, and the photographer can be just as biased as the painter. The process is different, but the camera operator is perpetually editorializing, purely by choosing to photograph ‘this’ over here rather than ‘that’ over there. Framing, color, composition are all methods to generate atmosphere, convey emotion, manipulate the audience’s reaction to the images presented. With the modern advent of image editing software, it could be argued that the camera has the ability to both tell the objective truth and, at the same time, lie more effectively than virtually any other medium.

I think the reason I enjoy abstract photography is because it’s very difficult for it to become political. We respond to shapes, colors, and textures based on our own individual histories. Each viewer can have a potentially different reaction to an abstract composition, based solely on the emotional and intellectual experiences they carry with themselves into the room. I’m fascinated by the little details we miss on the way to the bus stop, making our morning coffee, walking down to the mail box. I like to think that, by making images like this one, I can help remind my audience that there are curious little things all around us, at all times, that we kind of choose to ignore. And if we could just slow down for a moment and look around, turn over the rocks and see what’s underneath, we might develop a greater attachment and appreciation for this tiny, insignificant little blue marble we have the unique and exquisite privilege to live on.

Creativity is one of the greatest gifts we possess, folks. Life is a blessing, and I hope each and every one of you has a wonderful day.

-joe

A Portrait From The Abyss Of Abandoned Projects

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In the spirit of finishing old projects that’ve been gathering dust, I decided to unearth this portrait late last night when I found myself unable to sleep. I stalled on this painting years ago, completely frustrated with how it was turning out; I kept re-working areas of the canvas without any satisfaction. Working on it last night, though, I lost myself. Before I knew it, it was time to set the art aside, brush my teeth, and get ready for work.

Sometimes, I have discovered, it’s easy to stare at a composition for too long, to scrutinize it too much. There’s a kind of hypnosis that occurs. And when a piece isn’t quite turning out the way you want, all you can see are the imperfections. The problem areas overwhelm the rest of the composition and a discouraging futility settles in. It’s for this reason that I have so many incomplete projects laying about.

Something else I’ve discovered is that returning to an old ‘problem’ piece can be satisfying. Distance helps clear the cobwebs, and those problem areas don’t stand out as much. Solutions seem possible. The ‘writer’s block’ of the situation has faded away.

I slammed my head against the table so much over this painting and eventually gave up.
Last night, after a few hours, it all came together and became something I’m okay with.
I hope you enjoy it.

-joe

The Spanish Trail – Tucson ‘Eyesore’ Getting A Facelift?

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History isn’t always pretty, but it occasionally gets a second chance.

This historic structure has long been considered a blemish on the face of this otherwise dusty, hideous wasteland of a city. Over the years, dozens of complaints have been filed for The Spanish Trail motel, a deteriorating mid-century hotel held together by cracked paint and inertia. Conveniently hovering over Interstate 10 along the edge of the city of South Tucson, it gives any newcomers from the east a fairly accurate impression of Tucson. I stumbled across an article today, however, indicating that a couple of investors have purchased the property and intend to breathe some new life into it.

In it’s own time, The Spanish Trail was a well-known destination. In the 1960’s and 70’s, live music & theater – and a Hollywood clientele – drew an eclectic crowd. Professional staff lived on-site in a series of duplexes north of the resort and the property boasted luxurious amenities. Today, of course, the housing has been replaced by a steel yard; the golf course, lagoon, running track, and cactus garden are gone.

This is where movie stars like John Wayne and Michael Landon lived (and visited) while working at Old Tucson Studios. The large area that still survives, a space-aged-looking concrete rotunda, was the Dinner Show Lounge. Time, vacancy, and a structure fire have left little to appreciate.

Despite how unkind the past few decades have been, the new owners have expressed an interest in redeveloping the property into permanent affordable housing, with an emphasis on providing homes for veterans.

There’s no set timeline for the forthcoming renovations, but I’ll be curious to see what happens to the old 70-foot sign. As always, other peoples’ eyesore is, to my twisted eye, a fascinating and beautiful relic.

That Long, Old, Forgotten Project…

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I don’t even know how to advocate ‘art for art’s sake.’ The notion has always felt like a total cop-out, at least to me, for creative types. You know, somewhere along the line of “you just don’t get what I do” as a deflection when audiences don’t respond positively to a body of work. I am hugely of the opinion that artists don’t just make work for themselves, quietly hoping that other people like it. People who crumple and flee, screaming “you just don’t get it,” would do better painting a mural on their van. Creative types are always – whether consciously or unconsciously – concerned with the attitudes and opinions of the people that might see their work.

An artist, ultimately, isn’t really an artist without an audience.

At the same time, I have boxes upon boxes upon boxes of photo prints, sketch books, illustrations, and paintings – things I made because I had the free time, the tools, and was indulging in doodles, exercises, and free association. I have an avalanche of compositions that I made ‘just because.’ It can be exhausting trying to justify every composition, every brush stroke, every print. Sometimes an object or color or concept strikes my fancy, and I would be hard-pressed to find a precise explanation why.

I know I could completely b.s. my way into a reason why I made the above image, and I have several hypotheses. But this is an image made on instinct, without specific intent. I celebrate the idea that my audience, on occasion, might bring their own ideas into the mix, providing their own interpretation. That’s the beauty of working in an abstract, or semi-abstract style.

Sometimes the analysis is better left in the hands of the critics, the philosophers, and the psychologists. Nobody asks a five-year-old why they painted something, but there will always be a team of people who will have a theory. And hell, I’m interested in your insight. Feel free to tell me what you think this image is all about. Maybe I’ll learn something about myself.