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

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May 20, 2017 – Western Kansas

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You don’t realize how wonderful it is until it’s gone – isn’t that how the saying goes?

An eighteen-year-old version of myself couldn’t wait to get out of Kansas, to leave the plains behind and start a new life someplace different. I think that comes pretty natural to a lot of folks, but I really couldn’t wait to get away – to dive into new experiences and embrace the discomfort.

That was half a lifetime ago. I’m a man in his mid-thirties now, and the world looks a lot different than it once did. Adventure seems easier and life seems less complicated somehow, even though a lot of the idealism and hope and optimism has been tempered by various broken relationships, job losses, and debts. The upswing is that I have never put down the camera; if anything, the camera continues to fuel my optimism, my love of small experiences, my appreciation of the little details.

Life isn’t perfect, that’s for sure. But how could we ever deny the beauty of a long, slow-burning sunset?

Once upon a time, I wanted to escape the Midwest. Now I enjoy it, more and more, every single time I return. This is a photograph I made driving through the most remote areas of Western Kansas. Completely flat, nothing but farms, unincorporated towns, and a dreadful lack of gas stations. But there is beauty here, that much is certain.

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April 13, 2017 – Abstract Panel

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“There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.”
~Pablo Picasso

I like that abstract art asks questions and provides little (if any) answers. It guarantees a unique experience from each individual pair of eyes that look at it. It’s mystifying to some; I’m not so foolish to think that there aren’t people who just do not enjoy abstract artwork. But I would challenge anybody to visit the Mark Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. This was the artist that did it for me.

Looking at photomechanical reproductions in text books, I would go so far as to say that I utterly loathed the prominence and popularity of artists like Mondrian or Rothko. Standing directly in front of one of the canvases, though, is a completely different experience. I was transfixed. Seeing a painting or a photograph on a wall – seeing the actual thing – is different than seeing it in a book and trying to puzzle-out why it’s so damn special. Most Americans will never set eyes on the actual Mona Lisa – it’s referenced in pop culture, in films, and reproduced in coffee-table books and art tomes. And we all have an idea of what it is. Seeing the actual art object, to look at the texture of the canvas that was actually touched by the artist’s hand…that’s a whole other game.

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April 10, 2017 – Desert Graffiti

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“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
~Elliott Erwitt

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March 18, 2017 – Military Macaws

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In the tropical forests surrounding the riverside village of Urique, hikers can stumble across chili peppers, bananas, oranges, and papaya growing wild. In the slot canyons, guerilla crops of marijuana dot the landscape. And high in the treetops, flocks of military macaws (named for their green plumage, resembling a military parade uniform) squawk and socialize.

During the winter season, it’s difficult to find these macaws, but in the springtime the flourish.
And they make quite a ruckus

Hiking to the hilltop village of Naranjo, I filled my backpack with wild oranges and red ripened chili peppers. I had been hiking the forests for several days without spotting a single military macaw, and was resigned to not see any during this particular trip. It was March, after all, and the season had only just begun to change. But as I climbed the hill, through the rough-hewn circuit of hiking trails and patches of marijuana fields, I was delighted to hear the loud cracking and shrieking sounds of a macaw. Knowing that they live in large groups, I was confident there would be more than just the one.

Today’s photograph is one macaw in particular that I kind of made friends with. These birds can live up to sixty years in the wild, and they are a rowdy, social bunch. I managed to teach this one my name, Joe, and he definitely enjoyed hamming it up for the camera.

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February 22, 2017 – Old Car

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Today’s image comes from Opera Drive, a winding road on one side of the canyon known to local Bisbee, Arizona residents as Brewery Gulch. There’s new money in the old mining town, and some old money – but mostly there’s no money. Anybody who walks far enough up Brewery Gulch will see the junk houses and the yards filled with splintered lumber, old tires, bathtubs, and rusted cars. The paved road terminates, giving way to a gravel pathway with sharp rocks and small remnant shacks from the old mining days, when Bisbee produced more copper than any other mine in the United States.

Up on Opera, looking down on the gulch, are houses perched on the hillside – some little more than remnant shacks, others renovated by the nouveau riche. Regardless of income or social standing, the views are just the same, and always fantastic. I made this picture of an old car parked on the roadside while I was hiking up to the end of the gulch, where the road splits into a couple of hiking trails that wind around into the surrounding hills in the high desert.

“The goal of abstract art is to communicate the intangible, that which eludes the photograph and normal seeing.”
~Curtis Verdun

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February 19, 2017 – Painted Brick

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Midtown Tucson is slathered with foot traffic, dotted with some reasonably questionable neighborhoods, and absolutely covered in the shittiest graffiti you’ll ever see. There’s no real artistry to it, just a level of “this is the mark I’ll be making” level of hooliganism.

About a decade ago, when I last lived in the neighborhood, I remember there were several efforts for graffiti abatement; billboards and hotline numbers to report graffiti, paint donation programs through local hardware stores, and private homeowners who opted to foot the bill on their own. I used to walk the mile and a half to work at Jones Photo, Inc – it wasn’t uncommon to see a fresh coat of paint on an adobe wall on my walk home, only to see fresh spray-paint scribbles on my walk to work the next day. Folks quickly stopped even trying to match paint and they’d take whatever the hardware store was handing out, or they’d buy the cheapest primer; the walls and garage doors, businesses and restaurants, were slowly covered in sloppy bands of mismatched color, rolled despairingly over the tagged scribbles.

It’s frustrating, to be sure, but my photographer’s eye also found some interest in these textures. And it seems like the plague of artless graffiti has largely subsided – at least, compared to years ago. Most of what you’ll find today are grease-pen scribbles on light posts or at bus stops, or markings on defunct businesses, in back alleys, and on abandoned buildings like the one pictures above.

Naturally, if I have my camera with me, I’ll be taking pictures.
Until tomorrow, my friends, I hope you enjoyed today’s photograph.

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
Elliott Erwitt

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