A few figure studies, and some thoughts on the practice of drawing the nude human figure
For thousands of years and maybe more, artists have drawn, painted, and sculpted the nude human figure. Rendering the live nude model can be 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 more skillfully depict the forms that we see. But it’s a curious 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), the first few experiences of figure drawing evoke 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 can be awkward. I can only imagine how models must feel about being objectified for our benefit. However, most of the models I’ve met seem 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.
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
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 (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 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 (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 (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.
A photograph I took of a favorite old tree in a favorite meadow in a favorite town in Massachusetts
One of the things I love the most about living in New England is the drama of the passing seasons. Each one has its own distinctive feel and intensity. For many years fall has been my favorite, but I love the others as well. This past summer has been particularly sweet in terms of temperature, weather, personal discovery, and accomplishment.
Shown above is a picture I took this past summer, of a favorite old tree in a favorite meadow in Holyoke, Massachusetts. I’m just getting started on a painting of it.
But summer is gone, and fall is gearing up to unleash its fiery glory upon us. I can’t wait for blustery skies full of sculpted clouds, red, orange, and yellow leaves crunching under foot, cooler temperatures, longer shadows, mosquito-free hikes, jackets, hats, and scarves, pumpkins, apples, chilly bicycle and motorcycle rides, earlier, longer nights, cozy cafés, and a couple of extra blankets. Fall is almost here.
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:
- I’m trying to save money for an eventual house (with an on-site studio or barn).
- I want to be closer (both proximally and metaphorically) to my work.
- 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.
- 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.
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…
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.
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.
A selection of paintings from my 2004 solo show at Woodstar Café in Northampton, Massachusetts
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.
Several 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.
Not 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 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.
A plaster cast of a mother’s torso that I decorated with sculptural petals and a whimsical landscape scene
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.
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?
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.
A welded steel sculpture of a pair of high-heeled shoes
It is fun to work with juxtapositions where the nature of the medium contrasts with the object it represents. In the case of Muse Shoes, I forged a pair of soft, delicate shoes out of hard, cold steel, and displayed them on a walnut base.
The process I used to make these is called oxyacetylene welding. Two gases, oxygen and acetylene, are combined under regulated pressures and are ignited at the tip of the welding torch.
The welder heats the intersection of the metals to be joined. As the metals begin to melt, the flame is swirled in order to moderate the heat and control the melting. More steel is fed to the cherry-red pool via a thin rod held in the other hand.
In many cases, arc welding (which uses electricity) is more efficient for basic joining operations. But flame-based welding lends itself to organic techniques such as bending, hammering, distressing, and applying patinas. Therefore oxyacetylene welding is attractive to the sculptor.
Private collection (not for sale).
A horse sculpture made of clay
I was born in the Year of the Horse, and I view the horse as a sort of personal totem or power animal. While I was a student at the University of Massachusetts, I sculpted this piece out of low-fire red clay, fired it, glazed it, and fired it again. It’s about the size of a basketball. Private collection (not for sale).
A painting I made about the subconscious realm
I am fascinated by the relationship between the subconscious and the conscious mind. It seems infinitely possible to train the conscious mind to let go of a hang up, a habit, or some earlier formed conditioning or prejudice.
But what of the subconscious? Try as I might to change it, I am forever having dreams that involve frustrations. In my dream I will be at a bookstore about to buy a magazine when I realize that I have left my wallet in the car. I go out to the car but it is locked and I realize that I have left my keys in a jacket pocket. But where is my jacket? And so on, ad infinitum.
When I wake up I want to shake myself by the shoulders and say, “This is Dreamland, Sweetie! You don’t need magazines or wallets or keys or jackets. Just pick the damn fruit right off the tree!” But it rarely happens this way. Oh sure, there have been flying dreams and “I am in paradise; completely at home” dreams, but these are more the exception than the rule.
I wonder what would happen if I could train my subconscious to be a little less frustrated when I dream? Would it have a beneficent effect upon my waking life? Would I be more creative? More successful in my career, my studio life, and my relationships?
Or is the subconscious meant to be inaccessible? Does it work on a deep, hidden level similar to that of DNA? Is the subconscious the spiritual equivalent of DNA’s physical blueprint? If so, can we inherit the dreams of our ancestors in much the same way as we inherit their eyes, hands, and smells? What would those dreams tell us about the life lessons already learned by those who have lived before us?
Divining is a painting that I made in 1994-95, around the time that I graduated from UMass Amherst. Its dimensions are 44 inches by 55 inches, and it is painted with oil paint on canvas that I stretched over handmade spruce stretchers. This painting has been sold. Photographed by John Polak.