Late August and all of September were exceptionally busy for me, not only working in the studio, but traveling for work and exhibitions from Anchorage, Alaska to Aiken, South Carolina. As I indicated in my last post, the installation of Canopy, the mosaics in the Anchorage International Airport, was completed in mid-September, but just as the final sections of mosaic on the column were being installed, Missy and I had to fly to South Carolina for an exhibition of my work at the Aiken Center for the Arts.
This was an unusual show, organized by one of my high school classmates, Linda Prior Hunley (on the right in the photo), on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of our high school graduation. Along with my work, it included a number of Linda's extraordinarily beautiful, large-scale charcoal drawings based on bones and other natural forms, and the abstract bronze sculptures of another 1969 classmate, Esther Randall (on the left in the photo), who currently teaches in the Art Department at Eastern Kentucky University. Despite the lack of any obvious reason for our combination other than our high school graduating year, our work was surprisingly complementary. Esther's tall, thin, elegant sculptures punctuated the spaces between panels of my work and occupied the center of the gallery space in a dense grouping, and my brightly colored paintings and Linda's similarly large, but richly monochromatic drawings faced one another across the beautiful old wood floors of the downtown Aiken art center.
It was a huge treat for me, not only showing with artists whose work I admired, but for the first time in the town where I was born and grew up. My family has lived within miles of the farm I grew up on since well before the Revolutionary War, and my father, both my brothers and their families, and many cousins are still nearby, so we get back often, but I have had almost no contact with anyone in my high school class in forty years, most of it living in the extreme opposite corner of the continent in Alaska. Moreover, in high school I was strictly interested in math and science, and making art had never crossed my mind. So it was a surprise to many of my classmates who attended the exhibition reception or the 40th class reunion, held in the same space a couple of days later, that I had made a career in art.
Thanks to the flexibility and cooperation of the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia and its director Kevin Grogan, the Aiken Center for the Arts Director Kristin Brown, and Linda Hunley's willingness to make all the arrangements and transport them, I was able to include in the exhibit two of my large Southern paintings from the Morris Museum's permanent collection. To go along with those two substantial works, I sent eight smaller, new paintings--six Southern scenes and two images from Denali National Park in Alaska. The new Southern scenes included longleaf pine canopies from Aiken's Hitchcock Woods and Congaree National Park (near Columbia, South Carolina), a view of the fall forest colors reflected in a quiet cove on nearby Lake Murray where my father lives, and the marvelous tunnel of ancient live oak trees that extends for more than a quarter mile along South Boundary Avenue in Aiken.
Left: South Boundary Acrylic on paper, 6 1/2" x 9 1/2" (image) 17" x 20" (framed)
It was kind of surreal, working with the craftsmen from Munich on the final grouting of the mosaic column in the Anchorage International Airport until just an hour or so before Missy and I caught an all-night flight to South Carolina, arriving just hours before the reception for this exhibition in a place so different in every way. But it was a great delight to show my work to friends and family in my home town, to see and visit with classmates I haven't seen in forty years, and to remember that no matter how firmly I identify myself as Alaskan and am tied to this place, I will always be a Southerner as well.
As if the mix of installing enormous mosaics of the boreal forest in the Anchorage International Airport and exhibiting watercolors of longleaf pines and live oaks in South Carolina weren't diverse enough, my other major activity in September was completion of two large portrait commissions. Chris and Margie Jay are an Anchorage couple that I'd never met before they asked me this spring to work on their double portrait, but in the course of a day's visit with them in Fairbanks and corresponding with them over the months during which I was working on their images, I feel like we became friends.
It was an interesting and different challenge for me, doing as a commission portraits of people I hadn't met before. I have written here about how anxiety-provoking commissions are for me--having, instead of potentially the whole world as an audience, needing to please only one collector, somewhere, an audience of one (or in this case, two). Portraits, as anyone who has ever done one for someone else can attest, are even more fraught. But I was excited as I watched their images come to life in oil pastels on my large sheet of heavyweight paper.
It still seems like a miracle to me, each time I do a portrait, the way the person's personality takes shape through the simple act of careful attention to his or her features. Clearly, who we are really is written in our faces, the set of our mouths and the light in our eyes, and though as I've said before, I couldn't possibly try to paint "personality" directly, it invariably emerges in the course of doing the work.
I have looked forward for several years to painting a portrait of these twins--a commission from the husband of one of them. They live in different cities, but as all the other twins I've known, are extremely close, very connected. Before I began work on this portrait, I had met them individually, but we had never been able to get together in the same place, so I had never seen them together. Seen individually, they are nearly impossible for me to tell apart, but together, I know in a glance who is whom. I was very excited to see how their close similarities and yet significant differences would manifest themselves in my image of them.
As with the portrait of Chris and Margie Jay, and as is generally true of all the portraits I've completed to my own satisfaction, I am happy with not just the likenesses, but the images as works of art. I don't know how many more portraits I will ever do. I didn't expect to do any more after the first group of them I did several years ago, but I keep returning to them, from time to time. But it is absolutely essential to me that any portrait I do be a work of art first, and a likeness second. The likeness is essential, but I want the same things from these pictures that I want from all of my paintings. A tension between abstraction and representation. A focus on abstract marks, color, texture, and surface up close. A convincing, arresting representation from a distance. And a unique, personal point of view.
The scale of these images is important. It's important to me that they be considerably larger than life size. As always, when I did these, I wished they could be even larger. Even with two in a single image, they are about twice life size, and at 3 ft. by 4 ft., framed, they are pretty imposing on the wall. But that scale seems integral to how they work as paintings, and I hope that when people see them, they will be intrigued with them as works of art at least as much as they are by their likenesses.
A quick note about the Anchorage International Airport mosaics that I've included so many images of in recent posts. The concourse where they are located is nearing completion and on November 1 from 2-4 p.m. there will be a public open house not just for our mosaics, but for the newly renovated concourse and all the new public artwork that has been installed in conjunction with that huge project. More detailed information on the open house will be posted on the Alaska State Council on the Arts website in mid-October, but keep that date and time in mind. I will post another brief reminder here on my website as soon as detailed information on the event from the Alaska State Council on the Arts is available.