Friday, September 18, 2015


My genius neighbor, Fred, belongs to a group called the “Humanists and Free Thinkers of Fairfield County” (an oxymoron?) He has been trying to get me to one of their monthly meetings at the Silver Star Diner in Norwalk for many years and I finally agreed to join him. He said the speaker was going to be Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist from Yale. I had never heard of him but Fred assured me he was highly respected as an outstanding debunker of medical mythology and author of a blog called:  Science-based Medicine. Dr. Novella turned out to be a fascinating speaker with a huge range of knowledge. He spoke about GMOs and the anti GMO movement, challenging the pseudo-science that has grown up against their use. I knew nothing about GMOs when I went in, and not much more going out, but I think I did learned something about the way pseudo-science works. …and I did some good drawings.

There were at least sixty people in the room: academics, scientists, teachers, writers, artists, ex-hippies, all ages, levels of accomplishments. The questions were intelligent and I found the evening much more enjoyable than I expected. Dr. Novella debunked the so-called “scientific” opposition to GMOs, showing how unscientific it was and, much to my surprise, the traditionally distrustful of the establishment audience agreed with him.  When the “establishment” (i.e. Monsanto) is doing good – even if their motive is the bottom line, you have to give them credit.

As I always do at meetings, I sat and drew; this time on paper plates the kitchen thoughtfully gave me.  I drew the speaker, the audience. Nobody noticed or cared. As is always the case, always always, the first couple of drawings were awful, stiff, overworked. I crumpled them up and threw them away. Then, I got on a roll: four good sketches in a row, but then, the bottom of the bell curve; I was tired. Nothing worked. These last ones also got discarded. It’s like it takes a while to warm up, then the drawings just flow,  but after a while, I’m tired, run out of steam and they become stiff or overworked. Time to quit. While the images are theoretically portraits, they really aren’t. I’m not trying to get a likeness of an individual; I’m trying to create a human being that talks to you. Remember my story of the Renaissance sculptor, Donatello, who was said to have screamed at one of his incredibly lifelike pieces, “Talk! Damn you! Talk!”

Well, that’s what I do with my paper plates. I tell them: “Talk to me or I’ll throw you out!”

Friday, September 11, 2015


A few days ago, I attended a Labor Day party at the home of a new friend, a theatrical agent who over the years has represented some ‘big-name’ clients including Mickey Rooney and Dorothy Lamour. She was showing me her wall of photographs, past and current clients, and one of them was her “dear friend”, Misty Rowe. Who could forget a name like Misty Rowe?

About 20 years ago when I was teaching art history at the new Stamford campus of the University of Connecticut, the person in charge of Student Affairs was concerned about the lack of cultural activities on campus. She put out a request for faculty to come up with events to keep them around after class. I, although I can’t for the life of me remember why, volunteered to put on a cabaret in the main atrium at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, hopefully catching the commuting students before they left for home. I enlisted my lawyer friend, Glenn, to be Master of Ceremonies and perform his magic act. He had once owned a cabaret in the West Thirties in Manhattan and had started out as a street magician. Perfect! I put out the word that I wanted “acts” for my cabaret and a number of interested parties immediately contacted me: a puppeteer, a modern dance troupe and a TV actress named Misty Rowe, a gorgeous-looking former “Hee Haw Honey” who wanted to try out her new stand-up comedy act.  I made up a flyer and sent it out.

On the day of the cabaret, Glenn (in a proper MC tuxedo) and I set out chairs and put out snacks for the students, few of whom appeared. Just as we were about to give up hope for an audience, twenty or so Russian immigrants from a nearby Senior Housing project came in, led by their English instructor who saw the cabaret as a perfect way for her class to improve their non-existent command of the English language. “Vere’s da food?” their spokesman (the one who spoke English) inquired immediately upon entering the hall. Not a good sign.

Glenn, I must say, did his best. The puppeteer turned out to be a schizophrenic who was working out her split personality issues with the puppets; the dance troupe was having a terrible time with the space, totally unsuited to their work, and our “Ace in the Hole,” the extravagantly named Misty Rowe was totally unintelligible to her non-English speaking audience.

I have to say, Glenn and I thought she was wonderful. Her claim to fame was as a “Hee Haw Honey” on an extremely popular TV comedy in the late 1960s, early seventies, Hee Haw, a spoof of rural life populated by well known country stereotypes featured scantily clad beauties in “farmer’s daughter” cut-offs and short skirts. The show was bawdy and stupid but lasted on local television for almost 20 years. Misty’s stand-up act consisted mostly of her hilarious adventures as a Hee Haw Honey. There was one particularly funny shtick that has stuck with me about how when she went to bed with a man and took off the padded corselets the Honeys' wore, the poor guy didn’t know whether to go after the “bustier” or her. Needless to say, the Russians didn’t understand a word, didn’t laugh at any of her jokes and sat in stony silence waiting for “da food”.

She apparently was devastated, quit trying to be a stand-up comic and is now touring (happily) in a musical comedy about the life of country singer, Patsy Kline that my friend manages. Her defeat at the hands of the Russians (she didn’t know that was why they didn’t laugh) still rankles, although I recently received a note from her thanking me for explaining after all these years that it was audience failure, not hers.

Friday, September 4, 2015

POST #99: HOW TO TRAIN AN ARTIST (or are we “untrainable”)

It’s ironic that as I close in on my 100th post, I finally get around to the subject of art training. Maybe because there is no one way to do it given today’s hodge-podge higgledy-piggeldy art world. There’s so much hype that it’s hard to tell what’s good any more, or what’s real talent or innovation, or even who is or isn’t and artist. And with the advent of Photoshop, it’s a whole new ballgame! All you need is an idea and a computer.

I sifted through your replies, and as expected, they were all over the place. Some of you had conventional training (more or less as I did) others took a few courses along the way or had workshops with mentors.  Despite what many in the ‘art business’ would have you believe, there’s not a hell of a lot anyone can teach you. A neighbor of mine who studied art in college recently remarked that she wanted to learn how to paint in oil and I told her to come on over, I would teach her everything she needed to know in an hour.

The principles are few and easy, but then, it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s “ten thousand hours”. I can show her how to tone her canvas, how to under-paint, go from dark to light, thin to thick, glaze, scumble; but then she’s on her own. If you want to do work that’s realistic, you need to draw, learn shading, anatomical observation, perspective. If you want to be an abstractionist, you still need to learn to draw because that’s what abstraction is, a distillation of reality. After the first few sessions of learning the basics, you don’t need an art teacher other than for encouragement, trust me; you just need to put in the time.

But in the long run, it’s not the “how” but the “why” that matters and here’s where things get tough. Do you have anything original to say or does your work look like thousands of others, or, worse yet, your teacher’s? Technique is easy; originality is hard. For originality you need to be a fully developed human being, not just a craftsperson. You need to be familiar with history, politics, science, philosophy, literature. You need ideas of your own and out of that will grow art that is distinctively yours with a voice of its own. Otherwise you’re just a craftsperson which is ok so long as all you want to be is a craftsperson. My favorite artists, people like Picasso, Rothko, Max Ernst, Calder, Beckmann, Schwitters were all extremely cultured. If you read their writings you’ll amazed at their intelligence and the depth of their general knowledge.

But here’s what I do think you must study: Art History. It sharpens your critical eye, teaches you what is good. Hours spent looking at masterpieces; although you might never remember artists’ names or titles of their work; just looking at 1,000s of great works develops your eye, teaches you composition. I would often get my art history classes to break down a painting into the relationship of shapes, movement of the eye around the canvas, balance, focal point, etc. No matter what kind of art you produce or technique you use, this is basic information. I would often project a slide of a well-known masterpiece on the blackboard and demonstrate how the piece expressed the principles of design.

If you come by my studio, you’ll see that I’ve become a neoclassical potter, turning cheap paper plates into red and black-figure Kylixes. I can’t begin to tell you what fun I am having and THOSE NEGATIVE SPACES! Nobody used them like the Ancient Greeks and I have a lot to learn!