Sunflower Tote Bags

A few years ago I set about to make a series of hand-painted canvas tote bags. I ordered a couple dozen plain canvas bags online. I drew up a simple, happy, graphic image that seemed like it would be easy to reproduce. I cut out a paper stencil so that I could transfer the drawing consistently from bag to bag. I cleared all the flat surfaces in my studio. Then I got busy making the acrylic paintings.

My original intention had been to put these on Etsy, sell a bunch of them, and fund my next art project. But they languished in my Etsy shop, and I never sold a single one. I ended up giving most of the bags away to friends and family members, and of course I’ve kept a couple for my own use. I may have one or two left; if you want one, please get in touch.

The photo gallery below shows the process I devised to make the paintings. Instead of painting each bag’s image from start to finish, I used the mass-production approach: I performed each step on all of the bags before proceeding to the next step. So for example, first I painted a rectangle of white primer (gesso) onto each of the bags and let it dry. Then I stenciled my sketch onto each of the bags. Then I painted the blue sky onto each of the bags. And so on. The later detail steps were a bit more improvisational, so there are minor differences among the paintings that hopefully add some character.

Figure Drawing

A few figure studies, and some thoughts on the odd practice of drawing the nude human figure

For thousands of years and maybe more, artists have drawn, painted, and sculpted the nude human figure. In theory, working from the live nude model is a serious practice that aims to teach artists to see, to understand human anatomy, to appreciate and empathize with humanity in its totality, and to render the forms that we see. But let’s face it: it’s an odd practice.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with nakedness. The human body is beautiful. Nakedness is natural. It’s how we come into this world, and it’s how we spend some of our finest private moments. But we live in a culture where being clothed is the norm, and where the human body is often sexualized and politicized. Most of us have some degree of self-consciousness about our bodies. Consequently, for those of us who’ve had a relatively conventional Western upbringing (whatever that means), experiencing public nakedness evokes some emotional and intellectual dissonance.

The first time one ever joins a room full of other art students to gaze upon a live figure model (naked person), it’s kind of awkward. I can’t even imagine how models must feel about being objectified for our benefit. However, most of the models I’ve met seem singularly unconcerned about their nudity. In fact, they seem uncannily comfortable in their own skin, and interested in the art that is being made. Kudos to them for being so brave and seemingly unselfconscious (though perhaps this is an incorrect assumption).

In the meantime, we get over our discomfort, continue with the practice, and go on to gain a better understanding of human anatomy. We learn how to draw what we see, and we begin the arduous process of figuring out how representation of the human form fits into our work. The more one practices figure drawing, the less awkward it feels.

Contour Studies

Contour studies

Gesture Studies

Gesture studies

More gesture studies

Drawings I’ve made at a drawing class I occasionally attend at Amherst College

Other kinds of drawing

Human figures are not the only subjects worthy of our artistic study. I have also enjoyed drawing still life compositions, landscapes, old manual typewriters, crumpled-up paper bags, crushed Cheerwine soda cans, neckties, abstractions, and a few other delights.

1954 Chevrolet Truck

1954 Chevrolet truck

Some Onions

Some onions

Boneyard

An oil painting I made in the 1990s

I painted this peaceful, melancholy scene based on a photograph I took in the old part of Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens, Georgia. I worked on this oil painting while studying under the late Richard Yarde at the University of Massachusetts, in the early 1990s.

Technical details and availability

1994; oil on canvas; medium-sized; private collection (not for sale).

Historical Portraits at Rao’s Café

Portraits I painted of Paul Revere, W.E.B. Du Bois, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost

In the mid-1990s, I painted and installed three portraits—Paul Revere, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Emily Dickinson—in the outdoor seating area at Rao’s Café in Amherst, MA. (Which has since been rebranded as Share.) In 2010, I added Robert Frost to the lineup. Each of these people was associated in some way with Massachusetts.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), colloquially known as the Belle of Amherst, was a poet known for her reclusiveness. I once lived in a house directly across the street from where she had lived. I was inspired by her mystique, and by the fact that the magnitude of her work wasn’t discovered and published until after her death.

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du BoisW.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) was an author, peace- and civil rights activist, and educator from Great Barrington, MA. He attended Harvard, where he became the first African American to earn a doctorate. Among other accomplishments, he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Paul Revere

Paul ReverePaul Revere (1734–1818) was a silversmith and patriot from Boston, Massachusetts. He famously rode his horse from Boston out to Lexington and Concord to alert his fellow American militiamen that the British forces were invading, prior to the battles of Lexington and Concord. When I visit Boston, I enjoy walking around in the North End, where his house has been preserved.

Robert Frost

Robert FrostRobert Frost (1874–1963) was a poet and educator from San Francisco, California. When he was eleven, he and his family moved to Massachusetts. Eventually he ended up teaching English at Amherst College, where I lived for many years. Of the four historical heroes, Robert Frost was from a more “modern” era, so I decided to give his portrait a more colorful treatment than the others.

As an aside, when I was in fourth grade, I memorized and recited his poem, The Road Not Taken.

Bringing It All Back Home

In September of 2012 I moved out of the One Cottage Street art studio space that I had rented since 2004.

Big changes are afoot in my creative life: it is both the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. In September of 2012 I moved out of the One Cottage Street art studio space that I had rented for eight years—since 2004. I’ve set up a new workspace in my apartment, and little by little I’m getting adjusted to it. A few different factors motivated my decision:

  1. I’m trying to save money for an eventual house (with an on-site studio or barn).
  2. I want to be closer (both proximally and metaphorically) to my work.
  3. It will be nice to have all of my tools under the same roof. No more running to the studio during a snowstorm to get my drill/driver for a home project, and vice versa.
  4. In the near-term, I’m interested in exploring the influence that a darker, cozier, cave of a space will have upon my work. I’m also a little intimidated by this, but I reckon that bravely facing this challenge will improve the artist, if not the art. I’ve worked in basements before. This is a step up, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

I require a ton of quiet and solitude in order to focus my creative energy and recharge my emotional battery. In earlier phases of my life when such solitude was not easy to come by, having a remote studio apart from my living space was critical to my creative well-being. But now my apartment provides all of the solitude—and almost all of the space—that I need.

Over the years, I had produced satisfying bodies of work in my old One Cottage Street space. Not long after I’d set up shop there, I made a series of paintings entitled Place To Bee (envisioning a day in the life of a bee) that I exhibited at Northampton’s Woodstar Café (circa 2004). Eventually all of the paintings from that series found their way into private collections. Later, I made three big paintings for Northampton’s Bueno Y Sano restaurant. I made several more paintings that I installed in the Bueno Y Sano restaurant in Burlington, Vermont. And I produced a number of paintings that are now on semi-permanent display at Rao’s Café in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Turning over a new leaf

No doubt about it, my day job has demanded a lot of my energy over the past dozen years. While I love the profession, and the connections and opportunities that the Web facilitates, web design is a different window onto the world than the one made of paint. While I have tried to keep up a regular painting practice, there have been phases when my interest has flagged, and I wasn’t making adequate time to go to the studio. During those times, the studio was a costly storage space (and hockey equipment drying room). I needed to scale back; to downsize; to reevaluate my priorities. And I needed to get rid of a lot of the junk that I had accumulated over the years—junk that was literally getting in my way, and figuratively weighing me down.

I’ve spent the summer preparing the way: getting rid of nonessentials, cataloging (and in some cases, destroying) old work, photographing, sketching out the new space, and moving stuff. Now the work is right here, and there are no obstacles—apart from the mental ones—to keep me from engaging with it. I have just the right amount of equipment, and enough paint and supplies to last a couple of years. I’m no longer hoarding wood scraps for the bases of sculptures I’ll never make.

I will grieve the loss of the my old One Cottage Street space, and will always remember it fondly. But I’m also excited about my new “lean and mean” home studio space and the new era it represents. I look forward to sharing the work that comes forth from this arrangement. It will be different. But I am thrilled about it. Stay tuned.

Paintings of Flowers

Flowers are such rewarding subjects to paint. Not only do they hold relatively still, but they are full of color and intriguing form. Above, I tackled a blooming sunflower (and an aspiring one) standing proudly against a bright red barn wall. Oil on canvas. Private collection; not for sale.

She Loves Me

Below, I interpreted the spirit of daisies in a much more stylized way. I love how the north-south divisions in the background contrast with the radial divisions of the daisy petals. I donated this piece to the Second Annual Benefit Auction sponsored by 20things.org (website no longer active) to benefit Cancer Connection in Florence, Massachusetts. The painting was won by a wonderful person named Daisy. She loves me… She loves me not…

She Loves Me painting by Trace Meek

More Daisies

Have you had enough daisies yet? Below is an acrylic painting I made for the same family that commissioned the Belly Cast piece. It’s a bit more of a realistic rendering than the daisies in She Loves Me, but hopefully not too realistic.

Daisies painting by Trace Meek

Two Sunflowers

Two Sunflowers painting by Trace Meek

I painted these two happy sunflowers for a friend, as a wedding gift for her cousin. I used acrylic on canvas, and framed it in a black-stained, hand-carved wooden frame.

Place to Be

A selection of paintings from my 2004 solo show at Woodstar Café in Northampton, Massachusetts

Queen Bee

Back in 2004—the same year as I moved into my studio at One Cottage Street—I landed a solo show of my paintings at Woodstar Café in Northampton, Massachusetts. I could have shown older, existing work; instead, I chose to create an all new body of work united by a theme. And for the theme, I decided to interpret “a day in the life of a bee.” This provided ample opportunity to explore a diverse array of imagery. The title of the series, Place To Bee, is inspired by a Nick Drake song Place To Be.

Black-Eyed Susans

Blackeyed SusansSeveral of the paintings in this series involved flowers. They’re such an interesting subject, what with all the repetition, pattern, and color. This one stylistically interprets a couple of black-eyed susans—one of my favorite flowers. I painted this pair of beauties using oil paint, mixed with just enough medium to make it malleable. In this way, I was able to render the scene in an impasto style, where the brush strokes are very three-dimensional, thick, and textural.

Hunny Bee

Hunny BeeNot long after I’d hung the show at Woodstar, I received a message on my home phone’s answering machine (remember those?) from a fellow who was apparently a professional apiarist. He left a lengthy message, taking issue with the anatomical incorrectness of my “Honey Bee.” I had assumed—incorrectly—that the swirly shapes on the wings would be the giveaway that this was a stylized tribute to the noble Apidae, not a literal one. So to be clear, I have retitled this one Hunny Bee. Hopefully the reference to Pooh will be an adequate nod to its fantastical intent.

Queen Bee

Queen BeeQueen Bee is the master of the hive. And she’s a real cool character too, in her bug-eyed glasses, her pom-pom antennae, her horizontally-striped turtleneck, and her swirly-patterned wings.

Belly Cast

A plaster cast of a mother’s torso that I decorated with sculptural petals and a whimsical landscape scene

Belly cast, decorated

While they were pregnant with their first child, some friends of mine made a plaster cast of the mother’s belly. She was a big fan of daisies, and of the orange-and-pink color combination. After their son was born they asked me to decorate the plaster torso casting, so they could hang it on their wall as three-dimensional art.

Painting a two-dimensional image on a three-dimensional surface presented challenges, but it was fun, and the family was thrilled with the result. The petals around the edge I cut out of thin veneer wood.

Technical Details and Availability

Acrylic paint, plaster, gauze, veneer plywood. Private collection; not for sale.

Bueno y Sano Paintings and Murals

An evolving public art project that started in 1995

In 1995 I began providing mural-painting services for the Bueno y Sano family of healthy burrito restaurants. I painted all of the interior walls of the flagship Amherst, Massachusetts store.

Later I created a similar treatment for the Northampton, Massachusetts store when it opened in 2006. Northampton has a different vibe from Amherst, and this is reflected in the art work I made for “Noho.”

Finally, I was invited to create the interior décor for the restaurant in Burlington, Vermont, which opened in 2007.

The Burlington, Vermont store

Bueno Burlington - daytime view of Lake Champlain

In each case, I tried to capture a bit of the essence of the town, and represent it in a “whimsical” and upbeat style. Additionally, I created imagery that harmonized with the food philosophy of the restaurants: healthy, fresh, California-style burrito cuisine. Consequently, I have painted many peppers, onions, eggplants, squashes, and the like.

This next image shows a stylized view of Lake Champlain as seen at night:

Bueno Burlington - night time view of Lake Champlain

Lastly, my signature “orange swirly” pattern has been a constant, unifying link appearing in all the stores. Recently the Northampton store renovated, and erased the funky pattern in favor of a more clean, contemporary look.

Orange swirly pattern

The Amherst, Massachusetts store

Bueno y Sano mural
This mural scene was inspired by the enchanted Mt. Pollux in South Amherst
Bueno y Sano mural
My fresh veggies mural has held up well over the years.
Me, in front of my Bueno y Sano mural
Me, in front of my Bueno y Sano mural. Photo by Rebecca Johnson

1895

A painting based upon a family portrait taken in 1895

This painting is based upon a Meek family portrait taken in 1895 in Berryville, Arkansas (I’ve never been there). My grandfather gave me a copy of the photograph, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.

Clockwise from the top-left are my Aunt May, my Great-Great Grandfather Roy Meek, Aunt Rena, Uncle Minton, Minton’s wife Belle, Their child Leigh, and my Great-Great-Great Grandparents Meek. I love imagining their world without cars, computers or cell phones; their world of deep clean breaths and unfathomably bright stars. What would our conversations be like? How much would we have in common?

Technical Details

Painted in 2005-6; acrylic on canvas; 40 inches by 50 inches; framed in a simple black-stained wood frame. Private collection; not for sale.

Mohawk Trail

An oil painting based on a scene from the Mohawk Trail in Charlemont, Massachusetts.

This painting was inspired by a walk along a section of the Mohawk Trail in Charlemont, Massachusetts.

Mohawk Trail is one of my personal favorite paintings. It challenged me to confront and rethink my occasionally precise painting style; I somehow managed to let parts of this remain loose, gestural and abstract, while functioning meaningfully in the context of the larger image.

Paths and trails are intriguing, both metaphorically and as a purely compositional element. They have begun to figure in several of my works that involve landscapes of one form or another.

Technical Details

I painted Mohawk Trail in acrylic and oil on canvas, and finished it in 2005. Its dimensions are 44 inches by 55 inches (not including the black-stained spruce frame I built for it). This painting has been sold.