Fort Hill

My newest painting portrays Mt. Tom, as seen from the Fort Hill section of Easthampton, Massachusetts. Early summer corn grows in the foreground.

A friend of mine was looking for some art to hang on the wall of his new office, so I obliged. I produced this 44 by 55 inch acrylic-on-canvas painting in one month. I also built a custom frame from select pine, and painted it a deep “espresso” color.

In years past, I might have taken several months to complete a work of this size. This time, I was thankful for the tight deadline, and the opportunity to try a new approach to getting work done more efficiently.

Painting Fort Hill
Yours truly, painting Fort Hill.
Gluing the corners
Gluing up the miter-cut corners of the frame.

Bicycle Dream

Bicycle Dream

This is one from a series of about 50 “Gocco” silkscreen prints I made in the late 1990s (and one of the few that remain in my collection).

The original was a film photo taken by my dear old friend Ben Ostiguy (swimmer4buzzardsbay on Instagram). It’s a picture of yours truly on my bicycle, crossing the bridge over the Connecticut River between Hadley and Northampton, Massachusetts, circa 1991 when much of the Norwottuck Rail Trail had yet to be paved. Ben and I were out gathering photographic imagery for a painting class we were both taking at UMass, and we scouted out the nascent trail off-road style.

I first used the image to illustrate a haiku poem in a chapbook titled “Little Deaths” that I’d written, bound, and self-published in 1995:

When in a painting
you see a beckoning road,
then down it you go!

A few years later I happened to salvage a trove of genuine WWII-era aeronautical maps of Europe that the folks at the W. E. B. Du Bois Library at UMass had been planning to throw out. I used the maps as substrates for a handful of collages and paintings. But none of those projects were as successful as this print run, which supplied me with greeting cards for years.

I suppose I ought to scan the last two or three I have left, and make some giclée prints. There’s nothing quite like an original, though. The way the ink layers interact with each other and with the paper is hard to reproduce via modern printing processes.

The “West Mass” Rebranding Debacle

recent unilateral attempt by the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts to rebrand our region as “West Mass” strikes me as arrogant, short-sighted, and wasteful. It astounds me that these two organizations would embark upon such a far-reaching effort without involving the greater community in the discussion (until after-the-fact). And it is shocking that the groups paid $80,000 to an Oklahoma-based agency (Cubic Creative) to do the design work, when Western Massachusetts boasts a slew of homegrown creative agencies.

The term “West Mass” is grammatically awkward. “Western” is more adjective-like, and would have been a better choice. “West Mass” sounds like a social media hashtag that someone spent two minutes thinking up. I grant that there are precedents for using “west” as an adjective: we accept West Virginia and the West Coast as sounding normal, for example. But Western Massachusetts already has a couple of wonderful, valuable, and marketable nicknames: the Pioneer Valley, and the Berkshires. I live in the former, so I’ll focus my thesis here.

When I hear the word “Pioneer,” I don’t immediately think of the stereotypes of Conestoga wagons, tumbleweeds, Remington rifles, and people sporting either cowboy hats or sunbonnets. I think of the conceptual associations of the word: “leader,” “first,” “independent,” and, yes, “maverick.” This is exactly what the economic development experts are trying to project, right? It’s all right here, in the word “Pioneer”! (How’s that for a slogan?)

Who cares whether or not the term “the Pioneer Valley” (also known as “the Happy Valley”) isn’t well-known outside of our region? Maybe “the Pioneer Valley” is the secret pet name that you get to know only after you’ve invested some time living here. There are other ways to develop an economy and attract external investment than trying to shoehorn people into a new, inauthentic identity. Instead of worrying about external investment, how might we stimulate our economy from within? High-speed rail service between Springfield and Boston would stimulate tourism and employment opportunities. Let’s keep working on that. Perhaps we could draw more attention to all the healthy outdoor activities and unspoiled mountains and valleys that give context, beauty, and meaning to our day-to-day lives here. Or perhaps an organization could invest in the revitalization of one of the scores of boarded-up buildings in downtown Holyoke.

West Mass logoIt boggles my mind that anyone living in Western Massachusetts would see the new wordmark and think, “Ah, this represents us.” I’ve let it sink in for a couple of months, hoping that it would grow on me. But it still doesn’t resonate. The logo feels generic, and it is typographically-awkward. The slanted “M” is unstable, and the offset alignment calls attention to “ass.” The orange-and-turquoise color scheme feels more like Miami than New England. The brand does not sufficiently express the historical, cultural, and geographical attractions that make our region special. Are we so desperate for economic stimulation that any old solution will suffice? And speaking of solutions, they are most effective when they proceed from well-defined problems. What was the problem here? And how does an $80,000 orange and teal logo propose to solve it?

Make it in MassachusettsIf self-ordained economic development experts are going to invest in a logo and brand that looks—to be honest—straight out of the 1980s, I say we bring back the “Make it in Massachusetts” campaign, which was warm and charming, and didn’t take itself too seriously. But “West Mass”? It leaves me cold.

The identity of a region runs deeper than the superficiality of commerce, and any attempt to stimulate commerce by tampering with this identity should be approached with solemnity and respect. Importantly, the process should involve all of the region’s constituents—not just its businesses. This lackluster rebranding effort reflects little care or compassion toward the people of our region. It fails to consider our sovereignty and our character.

The Pioneer Valley—my home for three decades—will always be the Pioneer Valley to me, regardless of any misguided attempts to serve me a new identity. Western Massachusetts (I don’t mind spelling it out) is already abundant. We have: once-thriving mill towns in various stages of recovery and reuse, farms, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, colleges, excellent public- and alternative schools, mountains, rivers, dinosaur footprints, waterfalls, fish ladders, cosmopolitan small cities and towns, world-class art museums and restaurants, artists, mom-and-pop shops, shopping malls, a music scene, rock stars, literary heroes, microbreweries, coffee roasteries, manufacturing, high-tech industries, environmental industries, energy industries, boating, hiking, sky-diving, swimming, alternative medicine, political activism, civil disobedience, open-mindedness, and tolerance. Through it all, we manage to get along with each other.

Of course, the region also boasts its share of poverty, drug abuse, crime, inequality, entitlement, racial tension, sexism, traffic, urban sprawl, seasonal pollen, humid summers, potholes, decaying infrastructure, Massholes, and other detractors. Any economic development plan worth its salt ought to address these issues from the inside, and by soliciting input from the greater community. The Pioneer Valley—the place and the term—is big enough to contain and reflect all of our multitudes. I’m sticking with it.

Living Well Is the Best Revenge

All apologies to the late George Herbert for appropriating his title. But it’s an apt approach to weathering the crazy and noisy political zeitgeist of 2017. Of course it’s important to stay concerned, informed, and involved. But it’s also important to practice fierce self-care, to stop to smell the roses, and to remove oneself from the fray frequently, in order to recharge the batteries.

These photos I’ve taken remind and reassure me that the world is still a beautiful and incredible place.

2016 Odds & Ends

Vimeo—one of the services where I host my videos—offers a recurring workshop they call the Weekend Challenge. The 2016 Memory Bank episode challenges filmmakers to create a short film (under 3 minutes) out of their orphaned video clips from the year.

Until I learned about this assignment, I hadn’t given much thought to how many videos I’d recorded incidentally over the course of the year, nor whether they would fit together into a coherent narrative. I was surprised to discover that yes, they did. I hadn’t done very much work in this “video montage” style, so it was a new and interesting challenge.

I’d also never begun a movie project with the music. Previously, I had only added music to films after making the video part, like adding spices or a garnish to a meal. But using that approach has often resulted in movies where the music seemed like a poor fit or an afterthought.

This time around, I approached the project as a music video. (I was a big fan of MTV back in the early 1980s.) I started by writing and recording the music using Apple’s GarageBand software, overdubbing piano, synthesizer, and drum loops.

Then I imported the song into the Final Cut Pro video editing software, and added video clips to the song’s rhythmic timeline (versus the other way around). I liked this approach—it shifted my way of thinking and got me out of a couple of ruts I had slipped into.

I’m not exactly sure of the overarching theme among the clips. In 2016 I traveled more than usual. I had surgery. I got sick a couple of times. I had a good year at work and some pretty great times with family and friends. I got outdoors and did some hiking and bicycling. I played hockey. I grew some amazing garlic. I made sprouts. I learned to roast my own coffee. I took a bunch of photos and movies. I made four paintings. I published. I tried to improve. I learned some new technological skills. All the while a relentless and dissonant political battle raged in the background. My team lost, twice.

Perhaps the theme is one of continuing to be kind, creative, resilient, graceful, and happy despite the challenging nature of the times. Or maybe the lesson is simply to focus on the good stuff in life, because there really is so much of it to be enjoyed and shared. Hopefully this short film captures some of the happy highlights.

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.

Art Show

Update November 13, 2016: I took down the show. I have updated the tenses in this post to reflect the new reality.

I exhibited some of my photographs at Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream in Easthampton, Massachusetts, October 8th through November 11th, 2016. There was an opening reception on Saturday, October 8th (as part of Easthampton’s monthly Art Walk). I loved seeing you there!

Details

I like to take photos involving outdoor scenes, trees, water, earth, and sculpted clouds. These days I share a lot of my work online, but it has been a while since I’ve shown the physical artifacts of the process. When my friend and fellow artist Jim Ingram asked me if I’d like to show my work at his ice cream shop, I said yes.

Originally I was going to show paintings. I’ve made a few of those over the past couple of years, but not enough to fill a whole show. Later, I thought that I might show a mix of a few paintings and a few prints. But after reviewing my whole available body of work, I decided to narrow the focus to one medium, and stick to photos. I’m glad I did, because in this case it made for a more cohesive show. The prints for this show were all either 12 by 12-inch squares, or 11 by 14-inch rectangles.

Please enjoy the gallery above, which offers a glimpse of the photos that were in the show. Please get in touch if you’d like to buy one. Soon I will be listing them in my Etsy shop.

Venue

Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream
34 Cottage Street, Easthampton, MA 01027

What Happens in the Barn Stays in the Barn

I’ve been enjoying taking photos at night and at the blue hour, using my Olympus camera, a tripod, and a long exposure. The time of day (9:10 p.m.) was the crucial element in this shot, because at this time of year, at my latitude, there’s still enough ambient light to take a four-second exposure that reveals some details in the landscape.

Moreover, with the sun already sunk below the horizon, the sky’s light is predominantly blue in hue, which makes a nice cool counterpoint for the warmer LED light that spills out from my barn through windows and cracks between the boards, illuminating swaths of grass and garden.

Fireflies

My backyard is asparkle with them.

This was a fun shot to make. The photo makes it appear as if all of the fireflies are lit at the same time. In actuality, I set up a long, tripod-mounted exposure, and individual fireflies may have been represented multiple times.

In order to illuminate the peach trees and the rhubarb patch in the foreground, I walked around the perimeter of the scene with a flashlight while the camera’s shutter was open, reflecting diffuse light off a lawn chair turned on its side. I had to take a few shots to get the exposure just right. This one took about a minute and a half, as I recall.

I love the unexpected results of this kind of shot—it reminds me to appreciate the photography of yore, when long exposures were necessary under even the brightest conditions, and a degree of uncertainty was the norm.

I’m sure that some of the fireflies appear in the photo not because of their own phosphorescence, but because they are being lit from the side by my flashlight. The glowing effect is magical nonetheless, and hopefully it captures the spirit of an early summer evening.

First Snow

An occasion for reflection and gratitude

Over the twenty-eight years that I’ve been a naturalized New Englander, I’ve developed a personal tradition: every year, I must artisanally hand-shovel the first snowfall. In fact, I try to avoid using a gasoline-powered snowblower for as long as I can into the season. This ceases to be practical after the second or third foot of snow has fallen in as many weeks, which eventually does happen.

This year the first real snowfall came pretty late—December 28th. (I’m not counting the flurries that flew early in October.) We didn’t get a deep accumulation—it was only three or four inches. But what little fell was wet, heavy as bricks, and covered with a brittle crust of ice, leading me to question the wisdom of shoveling the whole driveway by hand (and by back). But I forged ahead and did my work, and in the process reminded myself of why I had concocted my silly tradition in the first place.

It had something to do with being rugged and stoic in the face of daunting odds and conditions, which I’ve romanticized as a New England trait. It also puts me in touch with an earlier, more thoughtful, less mechanized way of doing things. We live in such a privileged, materialistic society that makes it so easy to step on a pedal and end up miles from where we were half an hour ago. In this light, I think it is so important to maintain a perspective that honors the laws of physics and the idea that what goes up must come down. Whatever seems easy (like pushing a button and starting an orange robot that makes easy work of snow removal) must be paid for somewhere else in the universe, probably by some innocent butterfly whose only crime was flapping its wings.

So I return to my shoveling, thinking these deep thoughts, fancying myself some kind of modern-day Thoreau, “wishing to speak a word for Nature.” But I burst my own bubble when I catch myself grumbling about how hard it is to live in a place that experiences extreme winters. (I’m sure that my friends in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Manitoba will chuckle at this characterization of Massachusetts.) There’s always a five-to-ten-foot strip where the driveway meets the road, where big plow trucks throw salty slush, adding the snow from the road to the snow already on your driveway, gluing everything together into a giant block of concrete, and turning your evening into a major excavation project.

But the complaining reflex doesn’t last for long, as I snap back to the perspective of how fortunate and grateful I am. After so many years of struggling and wanting, I finally have a driveway TO shovel. And I think about people in Missouri and Louisiana whose homes are being flooded, and worry about them. I think about people who are being held captive, even if it’s a prison of their own making—a mental scaffolding of religious fanaticism, political fervor, or lust for attention. And my heart goes out to them, and hopes that one day they will find peace within themselves. I think a lot about people who face health challenges, and all the associated pain. My heart goes out to everyone in the world who is suffering, and it makes my little mountain of ice seem so inconsequential.

And I return to my shoveling.