The New Romanticism

[Above photo: my most recent painting, depicting Harrison Brothers Hardware, a general store that has been on the Square in my town for over 100 years.]

Given my academic proclivities, it feels strange to admit that I no longer manage to stay informed about contemporary art trends in big cities.  This is in part due to the rigors of running my brick-and-mortar store, but the main reason is more likely that I do not believe that those art scenes hold as much global sway as the Internet does these days.  A sort of artistic populism dominates the Internet and has managed to create an art scene in its own right.  In a sense, this represents a fundamentally modern way of experiencing art-- in reproduction, and without the guiding hands of curators, critics, or gallery owners to decide what gets released to the general public and what constitutes high culture.  It is an art scene controlled by artists and their fans, and it can be a boon to artists who act as entrepreneurs such as myself, though I would be lying if I did not concede that it is a bit anarchistic and lacking in quality control at times.

That said, I enjoy the wealth of different works I have been exposed to through my internet explorations.  I particularly enjoy following artists' pages on Facebook, and along with favorites from my own town whose work I have the pleasure of admiring in person such as Logan Tanner, Chris Wade, and Yuri Ozaki, I come back week after week to see what Duane Keiser, David Boyd Jr., Kimberly Kelly Santini, Stanka Kordic, and Jennifer Gennari are working on.  I also have a blossoming Board on Pinterest devoted to art that has caught my eye for one reason or another. . . lately, I have been drawn to heavily stylized plein air street scenes, landscapes, and interior scenes of all sorts.  Since I find myself moving in that direction in my own work, I cannot help but collect images that reflect my artistic interests, but I also try to ascertain which styles and subjects are gaining traction in the process.

Some seven years ago, when I was living in Montreal and thinking deeply about the art I saw in galleries and journals versus the art I saw online, I noticed that photorealism was a dominant trend in print and online media.  I wrote a piece for Escape Into Life discussing the reasons I assumed to be fueling the trend, chief among them being the ease by which one could deem a photorealistic piece successful (based on how much it resembled a photo and depicted detail accurately) and how well photorealistic works come across in reproduction.  This is not the case anymore.  The predominant art I see online in 2016 is more Impressionistic and idealistic, full of thick brushwork, and generally less urban in style, even if the subject depicted happens to be a city street.  It is almost as if those of us (and I say us because I am for once rather a part of the Zeitgeist) who did not grow up in urban areas or are disillusioned by them are reclaiming a softer, more dreamy form of art. . . and it is almost as if that softness enhances the beauty of historic and natural scenes and blurs the ugliness of harsher post-modern lines.

To me, these loose, brushwork-laden pieces represent a new Romantic movement that encourages artists to step away from reference photographs in loft studios or converted garages, urging them to go outside and feel the sunlight on their faces again.  The realistic art of today is classical rather than photorealistic or hyperrealistic, cloaked in deep shadows and bathed in golden light, but much of it is abstract up close, almost startlingly so.  I see strong surrealist and minimalist tendencies alive and well in illustration, but "fine art" has taken a turn away from these trends to reflect a different time in painting, to reclaim a space away from digital screens and cities.  How ironic that I should be viewing most of these pieces on the internet, and yet the simple act of viewing them begs me to turn away from my screen and look outside again, to reclaim my landscape, fill my eyes with it, blur its ugliness into oblivion, then rediscover and accentuate its beauty.  Is this an escapist trend?  I do have to ask myself that at times. . . but artists are probably more aware than most that we get to choose our own realities to a great extent.  Why not choose a lush, expressive, elegant one after all?


An Artist's Guide to Shopping Local

 [Above and Below Photos: my shop in a converted storage unit in Downtown Huntsville, AL.]

When I was still running my art business out of my living room a few years back, there were misty afternoons when I would begin to listlessly daydream, sitting on my balcony waiting for the universe to speak to me, calling up friends to see who was free, and then once I managed to find a buddy with spare time, the afternoon would proceed in more or less the same manner.  We would make our first stop at The Kaffeeklatsch, a shop that has been in business for over 40 years where I would buy some tea or coffee or a handmade mug for my collection.  I can think of nothing more reassuring than being greeted by owners Grant and Kathy Heath, who always bothered to remember my name and which teas I enjoyed and still do now that I run my shop across the street from theirs (what a treat to be greeted by the toast-like aroma of beans roasting as I cross the street, eager to liven up a sleepy afternoon at the studio with a $2 cup of their coffee of the day).  Next, a walk around our generally quiet historic Courthouse Square (a staple of any real Southern town), maybe even some gelato at Sam and Greg's Pizzeria and Gelateria.

Last but not least, we would drive or walk to Five Points, to a place called The Switch House (which has since closed in Huntsville and re-emerged as the 3-Ring Traveling Apothecary in Detroit), a tiny shop in an actual former switch house beside the railroad tracks, packed with the owner's handmade candles and bath products, as well as all manner of handmade local goods-- anything from bread to upcycled sweaters to hand-sewn notebooks to soaps to hand-dyed scarves and wool roving balls.  This last place always held a certain strange magic to me. . . among the old bricks and the unusually beautiful fragrance from owner Monique Given's candles and the odds and ends and goodies and random treasures, I could always expect my spirits to stir again, my dulled senses to come back to life.  I would usually wind up with a candle and a loaf of Huntsville's very own Fred Bread, then my traveling buddy for the day and I would return to my living room for a pot of tea and some grilled cheese sandwiches and an evening of endless conversation.  I am happy to sell 3-Ring candles at my own shop now, and simply opening them and taking a whiff sometimes brings back a flood of evocative thoughts and memories.

Why do I wax nostalgic over this, you ask?  Because, as Kandinsky once said, an artist must train not only his eye but his soul, and there are days when I train my soul by reading or praying or meditating or walking in nature, and there are days when I train my soul by hosting tea parties, and there are days when only a bit of exploration of my town will do, and part of the allure of certain parts of my town is the way local businesses manage to become community hubs and places of inspiration that foster the exchange of goods and ideas alike.  There are days when I need to get back in touch with what makes my town interesting, my surroundings special, not just by chasing whispers from the past but by seeing life in the present, when I need new tea to fill my tins and new candles to thaw my frozen emotions and bread to fill my stomach and provide food for thought too.  When I need to go out and look at things that other people have made with their hands and hold them and hear the story behind them and have the honor of taking them home to savor and remember.  Call it romantic, call it finicky, call it whatever you like; I want more and I want that extra little caring personal touch in an age when too many things feel impersonal and negligent.  I do not want to grab things off a warehouse shelf and call it a day. . . I want to talk to people and learn something and share the connection of being human and feel that I bought something that has a bit of love behind it.

There have been countless other local businesses, some that I can continue to enjoy and some gone but not forgotten, that have cheered me on my afternoons of wandering. . . as well as a few small neighborhoods and parks and alleys and other places I can go when I need to escape bland suburbia, creeping sprawl, heavy traffic, and my occasional feelings of inner discord and disconnection.  Simply going to a farmer's market packed with fresh, delicious vegetables or a locally-owned, smaller grocery store can cheer me as no enormous, fluorescent-lit warehouse of a box store ever could.

Moreover, it is inspiring and life-affirming to see owners and workers who do not hate their jobs (as far too many people do), who genuinely want to help clients, who make beautiful, high-quality things, who care about beauty and poetry and community and neighbors, not simply dollars and clocking out at the end of the day and getting it all over with.  Seeing people who dare to live out their dreams and believe in seizing the day gives me hope and helps to motivate me.  I strive to be that sort of person myself and opened my own store in the hope that I could create a little bit of the magic for others that my favorite local businesses have created for me. . . I needed the right outlet to realize my innate potential each day and work toward refining my talents and sharing things of value with others.  It is very hard work sometimes, but it is the most worthwhile work I have ever done or ever care to do.

You have probably heard the "Shop Local" mantra, and you may have already heard about how following it puts more money into your local economy.  Perhaps you have noticed how many local businesses work hard to be eco-conscious or particularly ethical in some other way.  Maybe you have heard a few weak counter-arguments about higher prices (which are not necessarily true) or how not every place is capable of producing everything (which misses the point, I believe-- shopping local is about trying to support local ownership and thoughtful small business practices, not entirely denying oneself products from out-of-state or accepting sub-par goods).  At any rate, you have probably heard all the positive economic lectures and compelling condemnations of many big corporations too.  Maybe "shop local" has become a feel-good phrase for you. . . something you talk about, but find inconvenient or are rarely able to do or do as a kind of activism.  If you are already reading my blog, you probably do not need me to reiterate those arguments.  That said, if there is anything I would like to emphasize about why I enjoy shopping local, it is the way local business owners often go above and beyond in offering a pleasant experience to their clients, care about what they do, have found a niche for themselves that makes them happy to go to work each day, and strive to nurture the qualities and talents that make your town uniquely your own.  If that is not worth seeking out and celebrating, I do not know what is.

What Painting Taught Me About Writing

 [Above: The Times Building in Downtown Huntsville.]

Is it too early in my return to blogging to write a self-reflexive post?  If a self-described show about nothing can become a hit, I suppose I should not be so self-conscious, which brings me to my point. . .

My friend Liz from Waltz & Willow wrote a post this June about choosing an art form and the way we often drift in and out of our interests over the years.  Reading it again last week reminded me that writing used to be my art form of choice.  Of course, I am fairly certain that painting has superceded it for good, but I do still enjoy wordsmithing, and when I stumble across old essays and poems from the days when I pursued belles lettres like an ardent yet furiously unrequited lover, I am shocked to find that I was not only a fairly competent writer, but possibly an exceptional one.  Not that I was happy with my work or happy when working at the time.  Ever in search of le mot juste and prone to severe self-criticism, there came a day when I would simply stare at the page, write the first word, then proceed to cross it out, terrified at how vulnerable words made me to the opinions of others, terrified at how the wrong message might sway others, terrified at the seeming impossibility of ever truly communicating with others, in short, unable to speak.  No matter how worthy those concerns were, I was not looking at them as interesting questions, but rather allowing them to become insurmountable obstructions.  I did not practice my craft or learn about it-- I wrestled with it using only brute force (something my mother warned me about, but I did not know how to listen).  Naturally, it fought back and paralyzed me.

[Above: The Red Chair-- a good place for armchair philosophers.]

My approach to painting was vastly different. . . I had always drawn; I even doodled in my planners all throughout my high school years, prompting my algebra teacher to ask why I was drawing in class and whether I had finished my homework already (I had-- I was rather fond of math).  Doodling helped me concentrate, and expressing myself in pictures seemed to be safer than expressing myself in words (a fallacy, really, but it felt that way at the time). . . I was cloaked in a sort of protective symbolism, I thought, that words, which seemed to require more concrete meanings, could not offer.  When I took up a brush for the first time, I did so with no expectations whatsoever.  I was not trying to create the next great masterpiece or shake the world or be edgy; I simply wanted to make a painting.

In making subsequent paintings, I would set a small goal-- to use a certain color, create a certain effect, or consider how style could influence meaning in some particular way-- and if I accomplished that goal, I considered the painting complete.  If the painting did not please me, I simply made another.  I would look at the "failed" piece as an opportunity to learn and make a better piece next time.  I enjoyed the act of painting and viewed visual imagery as a language that allowed me enough flexibility to say many things all at once.  I never worried about whether there might be a problem with my message while working. . . I would look at the painting after finishing it, and if the message seemed problematic, I would simply paint over it or not share it.  Funny enough, very few of my pieces genuinely displeased me then, and I am not prone to over-analyzing my work now.  I do not even ask myself whether I am a good painter. . . I simply make paintings, look at paintings, study different styles of art, read about art history and theory, and do my best to learn everything I can about what constitutes a successful painting.  If I like the painting enough, which I usually do, I share it with others in the hope that it might bring them a bit of whatever good it brought me.

 [Above: Rainy Day, one of my very early abstract paintings.]

In reviving this blog again after a long hiatus, it occurred to me that I need not approach writing any differently than I approach my paintings.  The exact same habits and principles apply.  Given my good intentions, what is the point of being self-conscious?  Instead of becoming pessimistic, I can write a dozen new pieces to see which ones work or I can come back to a post a week after scribbling it down and edit whatever I need to edit.  Worrying about sounding intelligent every time I attempt to write is not going to make my work more valuable-- being sincere and thinking things through is.  If I wind up writing something dreadful, I can simply choose not to share it. . . but increasingly, I do not think my writing is dreadful.  There are things to try, learn, and hone, but I have not somehow disrupted the entire fabric of the universe if I have written a few dozen or even hundred paragraphs that are not worthy of publication.  Most importantly, I can set small goals for each piece I write and break topics down into manageable chunks. . . that is not an indicator of failure and incompetence; it is nothing more than a sensible way to accomplish any task.

According to Kant, Enlightenment is the casting off of one's self-imposed immaturity ("Aufklärung ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbst verschuldeten Unmündigkeit"), but the German word Unmündigkeit, with its roots in the word for "mouth", seems to describe the concept of immaturity not in terms of being unripe or young, but in terms of being incapable of speaking for oneself.  I have always appreciated that quote, but I did not realize how much it applied to my years of writer's block.  At any rate, I am finding new joy in casting off my self-imposed "mouthlessness", and I look forward to discovering the many paths where it might lead. . .

There Are Places I Remember

What makes a place meaningful?  I paint a lot of "places", so I ask myself this question regularly, but in the past week, when I learned of the closings of two locally-owned businesses in my town that meant a lot to me because of their charm, benefit to our community's health and happiness, and the memories of friends and family I had made in them (Emma's Tea Room [above photo] and Garden Cove, as many fellow Huntsvillains will know), the question became a bit more pressing than usual.

The outskirts of my hometown have been a mass of sprawling, dull box stores and development since the early 90's, but now the Downtown area is in the midst of major redevelopment plans too, and with this redevelopment comes both exciting openings and sad closings, unexpected changes both beautiful and frustrating, threatening talk of "urbanization", and genuinely productive questions such as "What makes a town engaging?" and "What makes people love their hometowns?"

 [Above:  St. Mary of the Visitation Catholic Church, where I have attended many a Latin Mass and many an organ recital and Christmas concert.]

Though I am no city planner, I can still try to answer those questions, if only from my own personal perspective.  Moreover, as an artist and local business owner, I can manage to express a little bit of what I love in certain places through my work and seek to explain why some places hold more magic and poetry in my imagination than others.  I can even try to create a little of that magic for others in my business.  I am particularly drawn to historic places, especially if they were beautifully designed, local businesses where the owners remember my name, libraries, ornate concert halls, museums with great rooms I can get lost in, universities that offer plenty of public lectures, buildings dripping in ornamental carvings and corniches, untamed nature, parks in which people and nature may find balance, fountains, friendly small towns filled with flower shops and farmers markets, places that are romantic and old. . . but it is not always easy to explain why exactly.

Familiarity may play a role-- my thoughts are always moving and changing, so I long for certain things, such as the joy of sitting on an old front porch with a book, to stay the same-- but I think there is more to it than that.  I crave the sort of authenticity, continuity, and harmony that allows my mind to organize its jumbled words and images into meaning and value, and those qualities can be hard to find and even harder to cultivate in a world that seems perennially obsessed with shallow trends, obnoxious celebrities, vicious political ranting, and making a quick buck.

I look for the personal touches that add warmth to an existence that can be mysterious or cold, the organic traditions and quirks that can only spring up over time that help us bond with one another and enjoy life just a bit more, the lack of pretense and the openness to experience that spark thought, creativity, and discovery.

[Above: "The Tourist", a painting of me taking a picture on a quiet street in Old Decatur, AL.]

Sometimes, I find what I am looking for in my own hometown, but I often have to take to the open road to find it. . . to small towns, to hidden corners, off the main highways, to the places that are authentic because most of the people who would manage to obscure their authenticity have not found them yet.  I can hear myself think in these quieter, older places, and though some of the more rural areas among them may not offer enough in the way of academia or arts for me to see myself living in them permanently, they often still manage to awaken my soul enough for me to want to keep going back or hope to have a summer home in the country one day.

Seeing boarded up windows and crumbling bricks in once-thriving small towns can be as heart-breaking as seeing them torn down in the name of progress, but somehow, I still see hope in these places too, and sometimes they even surprise me with the way they have managed to revive themselves with art, local business, and lots of love and care.

[Above:  Lem Motlow's house on the grounds of Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynchburg, TN, a town that remains more or less frozen in time, though I hear this house has been rebuilt recently.]

What makes a place meaningful?  What makes a town engaging?  What needs to be protected, promoted, preserved and celebrated in a place?  Local ingenuity.  People who embrace what makes that place unique.  Memories.  Stories.  History.  Beautiful natural settings.  Beautiful, classic architecture with  balanced aesthetics and a human scale.  People who are proud of who they are and where they are going.  Authenticity.  Those are just a few of the things that come to mind, though I have only scratched the surface with this post and will continue to contemplate this subject for the rest of my life.

Do you have a favorite place?  Why is it meaningful to you?