Toni Morrison's Beloved

In early 2014, I was asked to provide an audition painting to The Folio Society for an illustrated edition of Toni Morrison's Beloved.

I had previously executed a book review piece for Ms. Morrison's book Paradise, for the Washington Post. It remains one of my favourite pieces of art and the opportunity to work with her words and translate them into images again was incredibly exciting. But this is ---Beloved---a true masterwork and a novel that twists a real story, history, poetry, horror, love and ghosts into a narrative thread that spools, winds and ultimately creates the fabric of a book that will never leave you. I read the book 3 times and knew that the image I wanted to first paint was the moment when we see the 'tree' of whip marks and scars that Sethe carries on her back everyday.

 Ms. Morrison accepted my work and thus began a full year of work on the cover, binding, frontispiece and 8 interior illustrations.

More on the process later...

100 Paintings About Drawing

In January I began painting about drawing. It makes sense to address drawing through paint. My intention wasn't to be descriptive or prescriptive--that's a whole other project. When I say paint 'about' drawing, I am literally looking away from technique or the 'how to'. There is much of the most reductive instruction about plaster casting your way to a solid, polished Drawing online.

I am interested in the thing itself, the drawn line that extends backward in time connecting us through our hands with the first people to mark a cave wall and forward pushing a pixel line through a screen into our imagination. Drawing is one of our most powerful forms of communication and the least understood. 

I don't just believe everyone can draw, I believe everyone SHOULD draw.

Words escape me.

It is strange how revelations happen. I have been posting to my @eyedropdaily Twitter feed for over 50 days. Each day has been an interesting balancing act between idea and execution. This post began as pure execution. I love typography and I drew a series of letterforms. I continued from there to complete the image. The 'idea' came later. OK, not brain surgery and something I and many artists have used in the past. But my feeling about the resulting piece is critical. The unknown answer and the open ended question inherent in the piece is worth coming back to.

Transient

Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin is American, 85 years old, an 'abstract' artist who works with space and light. He would probably argue the arbitrary or flatness of the abstract category for his work, because his work exists only through the perception/ context of his audience. His work is real not a simulation of something or someone. His choice to move outside the highly stylized specific logic of the frame was born out of his understanding of the role of an artist. I don't mean to suggest that he sees capital A, Art as some missionary work. Rather he sees art as wonder, as a search for better questions and an exploration of the inconsistencies that we are surrounded by.

Transient

Super Heroes and Presidents

Watching the car wreck that is the U.S. political system in recent days, I think there may only be one option for President Obama. Get help. I think all the Marvel supers are busy with their film projects so the best bet is use that Batphone and call the caped crusader.

Transient

The Inadvertent Portrait

I met the poet Ian Williams at a book event. His wonderful book of poetry, Personals, from Freehand Press, had been short listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize. The book is funny, unfailingly sad, acerbic, witty and just plain relevant and yes, it is poetry. But poetry written within earshot of the Personal ads that inspired this collection. His poems are daring constructions of words spiraling around poignant scenes of the misconnected and the coupled people that are at the centre of the 'personal.'
Brilliant.
When I returned to my studio, I looked above my drawing table and this watercolour that I had used for a commission took on a new purpose. The character in my painting was Ian Williams.

Transient

My Guru

Losing my religion, finding my guru. Your results may vary.
Ah, the damn fine print. As organized religions have continued to lose their influence in North America, a new and shiny faith is taking hold. A faith based on the same narrative as the 'old' religions but with one distinct difference. The protagonist of our new stories are us. We no longer 'give it up' for God, rather we self actualize and empower ourselves. Sounds good.
But the road to hell is paved with snake oil salesmen leaving us skeptics sitting on the church steps pouring our acai berry smoothie down the sewer. If we can remember that we are just visiting on this lovely planet for a short time and it is even in our self interest that the world is improved by our presence. Who knows maybe those crazy reincarnation people are right and you are toying with your karma. Hmmm.

Transient

Raw vs. Cooked

A sketchbook can be a wonderful tool, and it is a tool that should serve a purpose. I have sketchbooks filled with writing, filled with figure drawings, filled with cityscapes, sketchbooks used on travels, used for assignments and for paintings. Each of these sketchbooks supported and recorded the time and place of my thinking and picture making. The examples I show above are from an older sketchbook used while I was developing paintings for an exhibition--what I would call 'raw' sketches and a recent page from my current sketchbook---the seriously cooked. 

The difference in these pages is not just the obvious difference in time spent, but rather that the most recent sketchbook has become a project in itself. These drawings aren't steps leading to a painting but the continued exploration of an experiment with image and text that is now 3 years and 7 sketchbooks long. I should have titled this Raw vs. Cooking as sketchbook 8 in this series will be simmering soon.

 

Afraid of My Shadow

One advantage of using sketchbooks since I was a teenager, I can look back and see where I was at different times. The pages above are from my last semester at College. I was 23 and planning my year away to study in Europe on a Greenshield's Grant. I needed to see this twentysomethings drawings and words today. I was looking for the scent of fear. I was curious to see if this younger version of myself could give me an insight into the fear I see in many young artists today. Fear is the worst thing that can happen to an artist. I don't mean the sensible dread that comes with any form of real threat, or the fear of making your rent payment. I'm talking about the fear that comes from being exposed to something unfamiliar, being asked to step outside the carefully constructed coccoon of your highly crafted 'Work' and actually risking something.

What is really at risk in the territory of the new is the carefully constructed sense of self we have glued together through heroic acts of cross hatching and death defying leaps of colour mixing. Is the value of the work measured by how clearly it resembles it's source or how cool the style is? We have only to post the images to receive a congratulatory thumbs up.

But what if you were also interested in growing the person that makes the work, to turn the equation around and not see the work as you, but rather see you as the work. Risk, exploration and constant growth would make some sense then.

So, I was happy to see that the 23 year old in the sketchbook was all about asking questions of the work and not looking for answers from well-meaning friends.  

 

The Smoke on the Horizon

My old 'hood in South Riverdale was an eclectic mix of rowhomes that in the 1901's-9's housed the Irish bricklayers that built much of the neighbourhoods in the Eastend of Toronto. The passage of time had not been kind to the street or the houses. I did exactly what you should never do, bought the nicest house in the worst neighbourhood. The bars on all the first floor windows should have been a clue.

I don't know when the Colgate factory was added to the streetscape, but I tried to convince myself that the towering, belching and foaming factory was not unlike the Swiss Alps I saw surrounding Lausanne in Switzerland, when I was backpacking through Europe.

The stacks from the factory dropped phosphates all over our gardens and one summer I grew sunflowers and they sprouted to insane proportions. Some days mounds of foam would spill out of the loading docks and blow down the street like bubbly tumbleweeds.

It's over 20 years ago that I lived on that street, the factory was torn down when the jobs went south to the US. A new townhouse development is planned on the land and the old rowhouses are just 1901 facades sitting infront of highly polished new hardwood floors, granite countertops and jacuzzi tubs.

Toronto is always changing and the city has torn down much of it's 19th century heritage, but I don't think the belching heap of industrial mess that was the Colgate factory is missed. I guess we like the idea that where we work and where we live should be separate.

Looking at my drawing today, it reminds me to look for the beauty in the everyday. It may not be here tomorrow.

Illustrophobic

I was asked the other day about what has changed for Illustrators over the past number of years. I found this drawing of a panel of Art Director's at an Illustration event in a sketchbook, I purposely drew them when they weren't answering a question. This got me thinking about how the questions and answers have changed over the past 2+ decades.

Many of the stories, the black humour and the frustrated outrage I shared with friends over the years are no longer relevant. Brad Holland gave an incredibly rousing speech at the 1999 ICON Conference about how everyone is an artist (including hair stylists) EXCEPT illustrators. We roared our approval and today the argument is also no longer relevant. The old lines are blurred by new realities.

Another illustrator at the 2003 ICON Conference thought I was crazy to suggest that Illustration needed an organization like the AIGA, because he said," illustrators are like hotdog cart owners. Coming together won't help us sell more hotdogs." That is an old picture of illustration.

NEW Illustration is without labels, categories or limits. Illustration is the mortar between the bricks one day, the bricks themselves another day and finally an urgent message spray painted across the wall.

Illustrators today live in a much more porous world. The barriers and hierarchies died with the single job title and the one job for life workplace. In a creative economy the changeable nature of illustration- it is a noun, verb and adjective, is no longer a failing of character but rather the strength of multiple approaches.

The things that have stayed the same, the fear of a blank page/screen, the challenge of conceptual ideas, the frustration with fees will always be the same. What has changed is the insatiable market for visual materials through the web and in entertainment has created great opportunities for artists willing to embrace new ways of communicating visually.

I always knew illustration was more than just a bag of visual tricks, tics and techniques. Today more than ever what we do as illustrators is not only relevant but essential.

Visceral Virgins

A friend, who is an English teacher and writer challenged me about why artists draw the naked body. It is always good to have a debate about something you believe in, especially if you have 32 years of experience in the subject.

It is interesting to me as a question as well. After art college and studies in Italy, I was 'figure' tired. Upon my return to Toronto from Europe, I began a series of pieces exploring buildings, spaces and objects. In my illustrations, at the time, I used the figure more as a graphic shape carved into taut compositions. I was living my life fully asleep and my work at the time was split between bad art and even worse illustration.

My life changed and I moved into a loft in a horrible neighbourhood (where I actually first met the English teacher) and the first Gulf War was happening. I also was offered a single 3 hour drawing course at Sheridan College in Art Fundamentals. Teaching drawing forced me to return to drawing, and the Gulf War was my first subject. I began painting clenched fists with black ink. I used whatever I could dip into the ink to draw with and I was hooked.

Drawing was back in my hands but it would never be the same as it had been. I also returned to drawing from life and this lead to a whole new approach in my art and illustration. 

How did I answer the English teacher? I didn't say anything, I drew him a picture.