First Watercolor

For twenty years I made part of my living teaching watercolor at the local junior college—I also taught life drawing and design but mostly dozens of watercolor classes. I taught a lot of earnest kids and a lot of women just out of the clamorous march of child-care. I taught a lot of folks who were unable to paint unless someone like me showing them how…primed the pump…at the very least I made a classroom available. At this level of teaching, there were always the same questions, same issues of self-doubt, same inability to rise out of the rut of making the same bad stroke of paint over and over. But my enthusiasm about art always carried me through the inevitable doldrums; I could count on the little buzz I got from dreaming up new ways to reach through into the other. I also taught 7 classes abroad, 2 in Indonesia and 5 in France, 2 of which were with my wife Judith. Remember, I’d say humans have been doing this for 40,000 years, then flash slides of the colossal bulls of Lascaux, the spotted horses of Peche Merle. I’d say, you have at least 100 bad watercolors to do, might as well get started, or, say….every stroke of paint you make, conquering paralysis puts a little twig on the aesthetic flame keeping the coyotes-of-doubt at bay, lurking in the darkness with their glittering eyes. I seemed to be able to help people peel away the painting floating in the mind’s desire torturing with its perfection. Pay attention to the one on the drawing board. I liked creating compact lessons that moved folks toward completion because every painting has an ontology, a thrilling beginning, hopeful interludes with lots of crushing doubt and ruin of hard work. Every painting’s going to go through a bad patch. Only when the work is done can one really judge. Siren songs, crashing rocks, monsters roaring, seduction, triumphal marches, the band plays on, the painting gets made if you complete the journey. Sometimes five years of sitting in a dark drawer will bring the recognition that something of value has been accomplished.

I had a lot of inner conviction about what made for “good” art and what made for a “good” artist. I loved the esoteric, the thing I did not understand at first, the art that chaffed and provoked. I was raised up at the end of post-minimalism and the beginnings of conceptual art full of Structuralist theory. Intellect triumphed over the juicy meat of beauty. “Good” work had to be “smart.” Language was art and art was a language. Art was a “text.” Literary theory dominated; saying text says art only exists in its use as simulacra in our media-dominated- money world. I loved this stuff and longed to be teaching it. Instead, I was teaching how to paint pictures of things. Conversation containing concepts of irony married to the banal was replaced by “oh, that’s pretty.” It was curious and more than a little perplexing, that I really enjoyed myself teaching basic skills to beginning artists.

I love the life of the mind and somehow always found a way to keep my (so called) brainy life intact. I carried the fantasy about “high art”, about influencing a new generation of students in elevated academia, but my teaching was always at the lowest level, at the JC and extension courses for JC teachers keeping their credential on the march to higher pay. I taught recreational classes for hobby artists through various University Extension classes. In my mind, I had a great deal of ambivalence about this kind of teaching, but what unfolded in front me most often was the heartfelt and courageous move toward a more creative life and understanding the mysterious lessons of the blank page.

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My art school experience was saturated with drawing. I spent hours gazing at a naked body, me straddling a wooden bench with a pad of paper propped up; scribbling away, fingers smudged black with charcoal. We didn’t know it then but we were on a cusp. The cues, the signals, which made for “important” and “advanced” art had been stripped away in the modernist momentum of movement supplanting movement. It was all a rational succession in a resolution of contradictions. Modernism had itself reached its apotheosis. There were a lot of fervent conversations about the end of art and painting, in particular, seemed a dead end. The drawing classes seemed a part of old-school craft, but I never took a painting class in six years of school. Marcel Duchamp’s eulogy for “retinal” art dressed post-modernism in its swaddling clothes and by the late sixties and early seventies art took its place along with the revolutions of civil rights, sex, drugs, and rock’n roll. Art entered a new world where the subject for high art was art itself. Conceptual gestures replaced any real hand-working of materials. My senior portfolio consisted of a series of typed sheets outlining projects that were unrealized “operations” that would define the new world of art.

I left school deciding I would dedicate myself to realizing one of my written projects, I would learn watercolor painting and become a “Sunday Painter”, then have a show in some high-art venue, a museum or a big-time New York gallery. These paintings traditionally were shown at the weekend “artfair.” I had a postcard of just such a fair on my graduate school studio wall, a cheerful line of paintings strung on a clothesline in a churchyard say, in Provincetown on Cape Cod. It seemed a perfect mix of irony, the ennui of the banal; a perfect gesture showing the movement from low-value hobby art to something that could take its place in the flow of art history. Children with buckets in the sand, waving beach grass, picket dune fences, billowing clouds crossed by seagulls all re-formed into a gesture commenting on our new collective reality of post-modernism.

The study of semiotics was all the rage in art theory at the time: what gives value to the things surrounding human culture. How do we know what is trash, what has transitory value and what will remain as a permanent historical artifact? What is the energetic flow that moves things along this path? A small rock picked up by Louis Leakey in the Olduvai Gorge in Africa, among a welter of rocks showing some chipping along one edge becomes the priceless icon in the glass case illustrating the first tools made by humans. How does a swirling of paint become a Jackson Pollock, a priceless fetish in the museum? And so, I moved to Cape Cod and actually set out to realize my project to get on the Semiotic conveyor. To pay the bills, and to fulfill my DIY dream of building my own shelter, I had found work as a construction laborer (it should be said here the unconscious of my body was craving the physicality after years in school) but I would also become a Cape Cod watercolor painter; perfect for my goals.

To get my “chops” in order I copied watercolors. I poured over the Watson Guptill how-to library (titles like Make a Watercolor Paint Itself, Paint your Way to Higher Pay), and I copied Wyeth and Sargent. I did a little every evening after work; I was obsessed with getting it down. I was on the job. My “real” job, though, was mixing mortar and carrying cement block for a mason. On a bright October day that began with the omen of a red dawn—”sailor take warning”, our crew rushed to get a foundation under a house before the weather turned. We could look out to Nantucket Sound and see lowering clouds rushing across the bright water. Our crew of four worked like dogs. Four hours of this non-stop and I collapsed to eat lunch shaking and sweaty. The construction site was a wooded copse near a tidal pond emptying right into Nantucket Sound. It was just beginning to blow. I looked up from my food to see the scene. In that instant, surely mitigated by my physical stress and the painting exercises every evening, I saw exactly how to paint what I was looking at. My mind had been thrown out of its habit.

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I went home that night with no small amount of thrill and started painting at the upper right-hand corner of the paper. I worked each night for ten days, painting down and across and came to completion. In the course of painting, I had been elated with my work; I thought I was really getting this watercolor thing. Then I thought I had ruined it, then good again, cycling ‘round triumph and disaster. In the end, it was a really good painting. I could hardly believe it. I had taught myself how to paint and I loved the painting. Notions of “high and low” flew out the window as my conceptual lark took off on its own journey. So many years later this voyage of discovery has echoed through my work, but that first experience was received as a magic elixir a gift from a mysterious source and really the only thing I ever wanted to teach: How to teach yourself. It came out of the same urgency of the body that led me to work at physical labor. I painted watercolor pictures for twenty years.

 

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