Thursday, October 30, 2014


I just came across Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “The Ten Thousand Hour Rule.” It appears in his book “Outliers- The Story of Success.” He quotes neurologist Daniel Levitan as saying that “ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything.” Gladwell goes on to state that this holds true even for people we think of as prodigies, like Mozart. It seems 10k hours is “the magic number of greatness,” no matter what your field.

I wonder now, despite my having been “an artist” for so many decades that I’ve probably gone way beyond ten thousand hours, in fact, I’m probably on my second or third ten. Genius, however, appears to have eluded me. Maybe Gladwell’s theory has a built-in timer that resets after a certain number of years.

What pleases me no end, however, is knowing that my work is getting better, although very slowly. It requires that I paint or draw every day (like practicing an instrument) otherwise my hand gets “stale,” refuses to perform the way I want it to, does not respond to my subconscious commands or read my mind.

I once taught a for-credit painting class at the University of Connecticut in Stamford, mostly highly motivated older students. As I always do when I teach, I try to break down complex ideas into easy-to-understand chunks of information. Painting (in oils) it turns out, is extremely easy to summarize. You go from dark to light, from thin to thick. That’s it! The rest is practice. Sure, I can explain how to glaze: you thin down a darker shade of paint with varnish and apply when the original is dry. Or how to “scumble:” brush a lighter color on with a dry brush and rub it in. There! You know the tricks of the trade! Now, all you have to do is practice it over and over, every day, for ten thousand hours and you too can be great.

As most of you know, I am very involved in community activities and because of that have spent endless evenings at endless meetings. I survive by sketching, usually on the ubiquitous paper plates that are always on hand. My models are generally unaware they are posing and tend to sit still for long periods of time, listening intently. When I first start to draw in this circular format (a tondo is its official name) the work is stiff and unacceptable. By the time I get to the fourth or fifth plate, I’m on a roll! (and, since paper plates are cheap, I can afford to throw the previous efforts in the garbage.) The lines I use become fewer, simpler and more direct. Less becomes More. Definitely.

Over the years, I have amassed a 6” stack of a couple of hundred paper plate drawings that are reasonably successful. If I want to exhibit them, there are all sorts of possibilities. I visualize entire walls of faces in twelve-inch box frames or maybe lined up behind a large sheet of glass.

I think I’m getting better and better; just another few thousand hours of practice and I’ll really be good! (Whether I’ll survive a few more thousand hours of local politics is another matter.)

Friday, October 24, 2014

POST #62: CURLEY’S DINER: a Great, Good Place

One of my favorite books on how towns and cities work is called The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day.  It was written in 1989 by Ray Oldenburg, a retired professor of planning and has been re-printed several times (adding “Beauty Parlors” to the already weighty title.) His thesis is that modern life suffers from the lack of informal neighborhood gathering places (such as Curley’s Diner,) He calls them socially necessary “third places,” (in addition to home and work) and goes so far as to blame our current high divorce rate on their absence (too much “togetherness.”) He also claims that democratic societies need gathering places where people can share information and discuss politics. The book’s a great read, one where you find yourself shaking your head in agreement every other sentence. It’s all so obvious when Oldenburg points it out. He blames the exclusionary zoning of the past sixty years for preventing these natural “homes away from home” from developing - modern tract housing subdivisions that forbid any commercial uses – even ones that meet community needs.

Curley’s is the quintessential home away from home, at least for me. If I’m down in the dumps, for whatever reason, I go to Curley’s. I am immediately fed, nurtured, entertained and informed as to what dirty deals are going on in City Hall. You can’t get that at Dunkin’ Donuts (and Curley’s coffee is better too.) The current owners, Maria and Eleni, Greek-born sisters, bought the Diner more than thirty-five years ago from a bald Swede named (what else?) “Curley”(maybe he had lots of hair when he started out) and have run it almost single-handedly ever since. There’s not much turnover in staff; the only way the cooks and waitresses seem to leave is when they die. After your second or third visit you become “family” and are known by name and by food preferences (i.e. coffee with meal, not before). I go there at least once a week, coming home from the $8.95 three-course lunch with a full stomach and enough extra food for two additional meals. It’s not gourmet, but it’s good home cooking, and, in fact, it’s a lot better than my home cooking.

Curley’s has its regulars: the lawyers and businessmen who have been breakfasting there for at least a dozen years originally came after exercising at the nearby “Y.” They are now along in years and I don’t think they do much exercising any more, but they do thrash out local goings-on, as do the other regulars. I often meet my artist friends there in the morning before we go to our studios (alone) and every few weeks I have Sunday brunch with three “menfriends”  - two lawyers and a retired college professor. We go after the morning church crowd has left and usually sit around for several hours (undisturbed) discussing philosophy, literature and politics.  I see the same people there week after week – it’s Ray Oldenburg’s “home away from home” for me, a Great, Good Place.

Curley’s not only provides me with company, I get subject matter for my artwork. I rarely take photographs (although no one seems to notice when I do) but I feast my eyes on all the characters in the place, mostly over-abundant women and tired men who’ve obviously had hard lives.  I did try to photograph a new waitress last week - she looked like she should have been on a chorus line - but just as I lined up the perfect shot, the battery quit on me – a message from the gods. Fortunately, she registered on my retina and will turn up one day (unbidden) in a painting.

Friday, October 17, 2014


I went to a Planning Board hearing Tuesday night to discuss the proposed new Master Plan. Despite superficial attempts at public input, it was obvious that the plan was written with developers and large property owners in mind. “Highest and best uses” is the phrase most often used. When I first got involved as a “preserver” of historic buildings (not the most rewarding occupation in a place like Stamford), I  naively thought the term meant the most socially beneficial uses. Instead, I quickly learned it meant the most profitable use for the investor. The meeting I attended was filled with homeowners, ordinary taxpayers aware that what was being proposed would severely compromise the equity they had in their homes and their quality of life. None of the big property owners who stood to profit from the new regulations attended. They were represented by a handful of land-use lawyers and consultants who were there not to speak but only to size up the opposition.

While it might seem like a frustrating evening, it was an insight into local politics that turns up frequently in my artwork. I am first and foremost a social satirist and if I sit in my studio, away from the real world, what do I have to work with? I once created twenty life-sized puppets that were inspired by a hearing I attended a couple of decades ago, a time when developers themselves actually showed up to present their case. Now, all you get are “goons and ginks and company finks” (in expensive suits.)

You’ve often heard me complain about the meaninglessness of contemporary art. 
Even when it is used as a protest, it comes off as hollow. The work being done today is empty because the artists themselves are empty and their attempts at political engagement are safe and superficial. Why bite the hand that feeds you cocktails and caviar? A recent trip to Chelsea turned up gallery after gallery of faux photo-realist paintings and dreary, oversized photographs. The best show we saw that day was the work of a now deceased photographer who did street scenes in the 1940s. Unfortunately, artists tend to live in insular enclaves and even when they try to become involved in protest movements like “Occupy Wall Street,” it’s essentially superficial because they rarely have anything to protest about. It’s hard to be sincere when your belly is full and you have a roof that doesn’t leak over your head. I’m not saying you have to suffer to be an artist…. God knows that canard has long been disproven, but you need to be engaged in the real world beyond your studio and artists often find it easier to tuck their heads down and paint away. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014


A young woman who wants to be my art agent was disappointed when I told her that I didn’t want to sell my best paintings – at any price. Unfortunately (for both of us) those were the pieces her clients wanted to buy. I tried to explain that if I ever achieved any recognition as an artist, it would be through those paintings and therefore I was reluctant to part with them. The money, I have learned, quickly disappears towards the oil bill or the groceries and I would have nothing first rate to show should (by some miracle) somebody “important” turn up to look at my work.

The solution she came up with for the both of us to make some easy cash was to have me knock out paintings of saleable kitsch, artwork she could market through a large, high-end catalog company she represented (OTC: Over The Couch stuff). I tried to explain to her that while I could certainly do what she wanted, if I changed my style, even for a short while, I would have a devil of a time getting back into my own groove. I’ve been there; done that. Once you try to paint with a market in mind – even if you like what you’re doing – you can never get your own style back. Your work gets corrupted; once a hack, always a hack.

Many, many years ago, I decided to give children’s book illustration a try. Nothing shabby about that! I did a series of lovely (if I have to say so myself) drypoint etchings to illustrate a children’s folk tale, Clever Manka. It took me several months to do the etchings and put a mock book together. I then made an appointment with an editor at Harper & Row, a major publisher of children’s books and went to see her, pre-school child (no baby sitter available) in tow. The reception I received was very favorable and the editor asked me to send her more samples. Unfortunately, before I got around to it, a family crisis occurred (one of many) and it took a good year or two before I could get back to doing what she asked. By that time, I was no longer interested in children’s book illustration (my mood was too dark and serious) and I never followed up.

I soon discovered that all the months I spent doing children’s book illustrations had given me an acute case of “the cutes.” All the serious art I attempted to do afterward now looked “cute” - like children’s book illustration. It literally took me over a year to undo the damage, to get back to my own style and message. And so I learned a bitter lesson: it looks easy to move from commercial work to fine art and back, but it isn’t. In commercial art, everything you do is focused on client approval; in fine art, you only have to please yourself. It’s a totally different mindset.

Another case in point: I have a good friend who is a brilliant surrealist painter, fantastic technique, original imagery, but there’s not much of a market for such strong stuff.  Lately, he has been churning out acres of large, abstract paintings with nice colors and heavy varnish for corporate offices. They sell like hotcakes as the saying goes. The irony is, he doesn’t need the money, but he was originally an advertising executive and his mind set is to give the public what it wants (to pay for.) I feel badly because his surrealist stuff was great and what he’s doing now is nice, but nothing special. There are a million “suburban painters” out there who can do what he is doing, as well or better. He’s thinking of going back to surrealism, but I’m not sure he can any more. It’s easy to lose your way.

So, the moral of the story is that if you want to be an artist, you have to let the chips fall where they may. If you’re lucky, the work you want to do coincides with the marketplace and you can make a living with your art, If not, take the consequences and wait on tables before you try to do something “that will sell.” 

Friday, October 3, 2014


A friend of mine who had once been an English Lit major stopped to visit recently and pronounced my artwork “Bawdy and Chaucerian.” I personally think “Bawdy, Busty and Brueghelesque” is more accurate.  Unlike pornography, my characters are meant to parody, make fun of lust rather than to titillate. I’m trying to mirror a society of make-believe lewdness and very little real feeling. If you want a rather sad peep show, take a look at the students who come out of a local high school nowadays. My stuff’s tame compared to real life. Ordinary, hard-working people can routinely be found wearing outfits we used to associate with streetwalkers and burlesque queens. And given the fact that half the American population is seriously overweight, this makes for some significant overexposure (and unintended humor).

So what does that have to do with ART and why is the current art world so devoid of images of real life, let alone satirical ones? A friend recently described the latest “hot” painter on the New York art scene, (work goes for 100s of thousands of dollars). He does giant panels of shimmering silver leaf. Gorgeous stuff and a technical tour de force, but no challenge to social mores. What does it tell us about ourselves? Satire, the stuff I do, is especially unacceptable. It’s like no one dares look at the real world any more, let alone pay money for art that does. Maybe we really do need artists who tell the bitter truth: modern day Bruegels, Hogarths, Daumiers and Goyas, as well as a clutch of really nasty 1920s German Expressionists. Unfortunately, there’s no place for them in Hedge Fund zillionaire dwellings or their collections. Why would they encourage parodies of themselves? Why should they pay their hard-earned money for someone to cast a critical eye on the society they created and support?

And so we get legions of artists today who see only blips and bumps and produce gimmicky “installations” and clever wordplay. No emotion please! no social criticism, lots of sexuality, none of it true to real life. When I bring someone new to my studio, he or she is often taken aback by all the lusty, busty characters around them. But they talk to you;  (at least they talk to me) they’re real! Once I make you aware of them, you’ll see them everywhere.

By the way, I Googled  Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” (having slogged through it once in college, there was no way I was going to read the original text again.)  Since my work is allegedly “Chaucerian,” I think I’m going to have to deal with her and her five husbands (not all at once) in a future blog.