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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the summer of 2010 I started to work on a large painting commissioned by the owner of Rao’s Café in Amherst, Massachusetts. (Which has since been rebranded as Share.) Several of my earlier paintings had already been on display at the café, so I knew that this new one needed to fit stylistically and thematically. I settled on the subject of a carnival at twilight, inspired by the traveling carnival that visits the Amherst Town Common every spring. The format is the largest stand-alone painting I’ve ever made: 5 feet by 8 feet (I’ve painted murals directly onto larger walls).
Never before had I documented my process of making a painting, so I thought it would be an interesting side project to set up a video camera in my studio, film the process from start to finish, and put together a time-lapse movie showing how the painting developed. What you see here is about fourteen months’ worth of intermittent work (nights, weekends, and holidays) condensed into a two minute video. This is whittled down from tons of original footage. Highlights of the movie include a fair amount of non-painting “prep work” (a.k.a, “getting into character”), a significant composition change (around 00:53) in order to situate the painting on the Amherst Common, and the fact that I wear nutty outfits while I work. Most notably, I showed my sartorial support of the Boston Bruins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 for the first time since 1972. I’d like to think I helped with that!
While I edited the movie, I experimented with various background music tracks, but ultimately didn’t find one with the vibe I was looking for. So in the spirit of that Zen saying, “Don’t speak unless it improves on silence” (and because it is a predominantly visual experience anyway) I decided to leave off the audio track altogether. Listen to whatever music you like as you watch this movie (or enjoy it without a sound).
Update: as of November 2016, this painting lives at Bueno y Sano in Northampton, Massachusetts.