In many ways beyond the spiritual (is there something beyond spiritual?) becoming a Christian has defined my life. I became ‘born again’ in 1976 in LA, right at the height of the Jesus Freak movement. I started going to the first Vineyard Christian Fellowship, got baptized in the Pacific Ocean and stuck with non-denominational churches and college fellowship groups all through my college years. I met my first wife, Kathy, in a college fellowship group, that brought me in contact with her family, who included the single best example of living the true Christian life I’ve ever come across, my father-in-law Dwight Johnson. Boy, did I learn a lot from that man, I am so grateful for him.
An interesting clarifying moment for me came when I went to art graduate school in Michigan in 1980. One the one side I was in a very intensely free and creative environment at school. On the other I was attending a Baptist church my wife and I had found near where we lived. And what did I find? Both groups tended to be a bit judgmental of the other, no doubt about it. But the art group, in spite of their liberality, were the more judgmental of the two, by far. I thought long and hard about why that was. What I discovered as I watched the two groups was, that in spite of the judgmental elements in the teachings at church, there was an even stronger element that offset that (at least in that church and the other churches I had attended), and that was teachings of mercy, compassion, forgiveness, humility, patience, kindness, and love.
Now, I don’t mean that no one in the art group had any of those traits, of course they did. But as a group they did not have any focused or guided attention paid to those things. i In this case, it was a very intensely judgmental art atmosphere. We were there to refine our art and that happened by putting it in the fire of judgment. But there was no teaching or guiding on the part of the main professor I had, nor the other professors I came in contact with, that offset that with the qualities I mentioned above.
Many decades have passed since then and I’ve been in the art world and the church world both for all those years. I like both worlds, and there are things I don’t like about them. Church can squash creativity and free thinking like it’s nobody’s business. But the art world, as odd as it sounds, can do the same. The church and art worlds can both make you feel like you don’t belong. They can both define the world and culture around them as unacceptable because it doesn’t fit their idea of healthy or happy. They can both be so sure of themselves that they feel superior and enlightened compared to everyone else.
What are you suppose to do in that situation? What I reach for is to be the best of both as best I can. But how does one do that? By practicing. Just as my artwork is better because I practice it, so is my heart, my mind and my actions in all of life when I practice those things I mentioned above; mercy, compassion, forgiveness, humility (ok, not always good at that) patience, kindness, and love. It also means I practice judgment. Practicing judgments causes me to use it less, not more. It helps me to discern between pre-judgment, a judgment from a place of ignorance and a judgment from a place of insecurity and defense, and the more powerful and good limited judgment based on observation, evidence and necessity.
You don’t get better at something without practice. If you don’t want to get better, then…sorry, you still have to practice because you can’t even maintain your skills without it. This is true of creativity and spirituality and indeed, any quality of character you want to have in life. Finding a way to be inspired to practice any these things is one of the essential tasks of a successful life.
A few weeks ago, when I was on hiatus from my part-time job as a running coach, I took advantage of a few free Thursday nights to go to a figure drawing session at Philbrook Museum of Art. It was the first time I had ever photographed myself drawing like this and it was very eye opening to look back and watch my own process. I recommend it to anyone doing creative work.
10 minute pose in 37 seconds
This is a contour drawing, where you are finding definition of form via the contour lines of the figure. I have often been asked over the decades about being distracted while drawing the nude due to the arousing nature of staring at a naked person. The truth is, which I think you can see in these time-lapse photos, the process is incredibly focused, with 100% of one’s mind and body working to see and translate the scene onto paper. What I have always told my students, whether as a formal college instructor or just talking to people asking questions about art, is that drawing is irreducibly only one thing. It’s marks on a piece of paper. When I draw, my focus is on making an interesting set of marks on a piece of paper.
10 minute pose in 23 seconds
This is what I call a shape drawing, where I focused first on defining the individual shapes that then end up forming the figure’s overall shape. Only after I got those shapes in place did I start to define the figure with more shading and line.
10 minute pose in 37 seconds
This is another contour line drawing. It’s done in blue colored pencil. Why? I don’t know, just wanted to try it is all. One of the big challenges of drawing a figure or scene is organizing the space in your head before you start to draw. Making sure she was going to fit in other words. That starts at the very beginning of the drawing because if you get that first element proportioned wrong, your mistakes will multiply and you will end up with the figure not being composed as you would like.
Have you ever felt lost? I have. Many times. By lost I don’t mean I didn’t know where I was. I mean I didn’t know where I was going or, in most cases, I knew where I wanted to go I just didn’t know how to get there. That’s probably been my main feeling of ‘lost’ over the years.
The Napkin Dad Daily
My Napkin Dad endeavor is a good example. I knew why I did it at the beginning, in 1998, obviously. I was drawing for my daughters. If you don’t know that story you can check it out at the ‘Napkin Beginnings‘ page. After they finished school I posted those drawings online for my friends and audience at Flickr.com starting in 2005 and on The Napkin Dad Daily starting in 2008.
And for 10 years now I have continued to do that. It became a way for me to express myself artistically and intellectually. I felt I had simply expanded my idea from giving these expressions to my daughters to giving them to the entire world. And the napkins have gone all around the world. I have friends in every corner of the globe as a result of the napkins. I even got a tw0-page spread in a big coffee table book about the history of napkins published in Norway!
Time for a Change
It also became a way for me to make money. I became friends and then professional partners with great people in Australia as a result of the napkins. I sold merchandise based on the napkins; t-shirts, cups, cards, a book and even the napkins themselves. I have also done many paid and unpaid speaking gigs based on me being ‘The Napkin Dad’.
But I don’t make very much money doing this. It’s been a labor of love that has been made possible by my wife, Linda, supporting us on her salary, for which I am very grateful. I contribute some, but not nearly as much as she does. Last year I decided that if I was going to continue doing the napkins I would need to focus on making it a viable business that made substantially more money than it had been.
So I enrolled in an entrepreneurial class at Tulsa Community College called ‘Launch’ in 2014. It was a 16 week program dedicated to teaching some of the essentials of owning a business and actually mentor the participants so they could actually launch their business by the end of the class. I had high hopes for the class and many of my hopes were realized. But some of my hopes were not realized and the reason for that was my inability to find and refine my purpose and direction.
But not being able to launch my new direction in 16 weeks didn’t mean I wasn’t working on it. I was and I am.
What’s In A Name?
While many ingredients go into a business, it really starts with an idea and a name. My moniker has always been ‘The Napkin Dad’ and that isn’t changing. The name of the blog has been ‘The Napkin Dad Daily’ and that is changing. It’s now simply, ‘The Napkin‘.
My 4 daughters are all grown women now. Two of them have children of their own. I am not an active dad of young kids that the word ‘dad’ in a blog would hint at.
I most often draw and I write about things not directly related to raising kids or being a parent. This has started to create a conflict in my own head, with the name no longer accurately reflecting what The Napkin is about. It’s no longer primarily about me as a dad, it’s about me as a man and an artist. My focus has changed over the years and I want the name of my endeavor to reflect that.
I want to broaden the appeal and keeping ‘dad’ in the title immediately puts me in a genre I don’t really fit anymore. People come to blogs based on those sorts of genre titles and it’s appeal is limited because of the title.
The other element in a title is the ‘tag line’. It’s the descriptive phrase that succinctly says what the enterprise is all about. At the beginning the word ‘absorbent’ attached itself to the blog. As I worked through new ideas the word ‘absorbent’ stayed constant. I recently tried out ‘Absorbent Ideas for Head and Heart’ But it still lacked the definition I wanted. Last night I changed one word.
Now it reads, ‘Absorbent Art for Head and Heart‘.
That clarified and focused my thinking about the entire endeavor.
The Napkin is about:
My art; the creating, sharing and selling of it.
Sharing other artists and their art with you in conversations, studios, galleries, museums and online.
Helping other artists via creativity coaching.
Exploring the ideas, subjects and beliefs that drive the creation of art.
Inspiring and motivating others as a speaker to bring out their creativity in positive ways.
My passionate belief that the individual and the world can be changed for the better by art.
Call To Action
Yes, I would like you to do something for me. Maybe even a few things.
Suggest improvements or new features on the website or if see a problem, let me know. The contact information
Donate financially to the building of The Napkin. There are costs associated with trying to get this launch off the ground and any little bit helps. There is a ‘Donate’ button over on the right.
Hire me as your Creativity Coach. If you need a jump start with your own creative endeavors I will work with you to get you back in the creative groove, no matter how long ago you put that groove on the shelf. Here is a post about it.
Hire me as a speaker. I am available for corporate and group speaking engagements and can speak on a variety of topics having to do with creativity, art, social media, photography and more. Contact me if you or your company is interested. Take a look at the ‘speaking‘ page for more information.
Subscribe to The Napkin if you haven’t already. It will come to your email whenever I post.
Promote ‘The Napkin’ to your friends and social media followers.
Comment on the blog. Even if you just say ‘Nice’ or something like that, it helps my traffic statistics.
New merchandise will be coming soon. Buy something (maybe as a gift?) when the time comes.
So, there you have it. I love creating ‘The Napkin’ for you and hope to continue doing it even better well into the future!
Drawing by Marty Coleman
Quote by President John F. Kennedy, 1917 – 1963, 35th President of the United States (1961-1963)
There is a museum here in Tulsa, a gem relatively unknown outside of Oklahoma and the art world. Philbrook Museum of Art was originally an Italian inspired mansion built in 1927 by Waite Phillips of Phillips 66 lineage. He and his wife gave the estate to Tulsa in 1938 as an art center and it’s been Tulsa’s center of art appreciation and education ever since.
Philbrook Museum of Art and Gardens
Alexander Archipenko is also a gem relatively unknown outside the art world. If you know Cubist and Modernist art history, specifically sculpture, you may have heard of him. Otherwise it’s not likely.
Alexander Archipenko, 1887-1964
Even though I am an artist and studied art history, I know of Archipenko for a more personal reason. My grandparents had a great collection of art in their house growing up. Most were mid-twentieth century American drawings and prints. But they had one art piece that was different than all the rest. It was a small figurative sculpture by Alexander Archipenko.
I had largely forgotten about this sculpture when In 2012 I was leading a group of photographers on a photo shoot called ‘Black and White at Philbrook’. I turned into one of the 72 rooms of the mansion/museum and found this in front of me.
Standing Concave, Bronze – Philbrook Museum of Art
I knew immediately it was the sculpture. I knew it wasn’t THE sculpture because the one my grandparents had was silver plated bronze and this was just bronze. But it was the same sculpture made from the same mold. Most bronze sculptures are made in multiples.
I actually got giddy about this unexpected find. I remember telling some of the people with me about it being the same one I had been around as a kid. I wasn’t at all sure they believed me, but I was excited nonetheless. It brought me back to my youth, to my grandparent’s house and to my unadulterated love of art.
Here is another view of the piece I took in color so I could send it to my family to double check my memory. My older sister at first wasn’t sure it was the right one but eventually came to the conclusion it was.
Standing Concave – Philbrook Museum of Art
Standing Concave / Glorification of Beauty, 1914
Touching and Being Touched By
This is the piece. It looks silver but it is actually a bronze sculpture that has been silver plated. All the grandkids loved to touch it’s cool surfaces and trace the lines (maybe the boys a bit more than the girls). I may have been a giggly little boy thinking it was fun to touch a naked sculpture at some point but what I ended with was a love of the form, style and surface. I am sure Mama Powell wasn’t happy about all the fingerprints but I don’t remember it being a big deal. This piece, and the others in their home, really were the visual starting point for me wanting to be an artist from an early age.
I found out in my research that it actually has two names. It’s listed most often as ‘Glorification of Beauty’ but I remember the word concave always being associated with it and it is also named ‘Standing Concave’ The Philbrook piece is named that way for example. Funny how that goes, I know in my own work I might look at an image years later, not remember the title and retitle it something completely different so it would make sense that it could have two names.
Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964)
Archipenko was originally from Kiev in Russia (now part of Ukraine). He moved to Paris in 1908, becoming a creative contemporary of Picasso, Malevich, Duchamp, Derain and others. He moved quickly into a cubist style, but with a sleek sensibility to his work that presaged the Art Moderne design style of later decades.
He was one of the legendary artists exhibiting in the 1913 Armory show in New York City, one of the most controversial art exhibitions in history. His work was mocked (as were many other modern artist’s work) by the New York and American press. In spite of the negative reaction, it wasn’t long before he and many other European artists immigrated to America and established themselves and their styles as the preeminent forces directing the future of art around the world.
Blue Dancer, 1913
As I mentioned, Archipenko was involved with some of the premier artists of his day. These sculptures, with a more theatrical and painterly emphasis than the bronzes sculptures , show in the use of color, form and material and with references to the circus, harlequins, and the female figure, the influence of Picasso and Duchamp in particular.
Carrousel Pierrot, 1913
In the Boudoir (Before the Mirror), 1915
Medrano II, 1913
Composition, 1920 – work on paper
As he matured as an artist, he retained his interest in those same two directions.
Floating Torso, 1940
Queen of Sheba, 1961
Architectural Figure, 1950
In his later years he won outdoor commissions that allowed him to create in a much larger scale than he had before.
Gateway Sculptures, University of Missouri, Kansas City, 1950
King Solomon, 1968 (cast based on small model completed before his death), University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia campus
There were many other sculptors working during the first half of the 20th century that both influenced and were influenced by Archipenko. Here are two of them.
Jacques Lipchitz, Girl with Braided Hair, 1914
Henry Moore with his sculpture
Remember, seeing art is one of the best ways of insuring you will see the world in it’s fullest light. It’s always worth exploring art.
If you would like to know more about Archipenko a great place to start is at the Archipenko Foundation, headed by his widow, Frances Archipenko Gray.
You can see others in my ‘Artists I Love’ series here:
On Sunday I drove 9 1/2 hours to get to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to attend my Aunt Ann’s funeral on Monday. I left to return home that same afternoon. I could have driven it straight back but it would have had me arriving around 2am, waking up Linda, if she wasn’t still up worrying about me driving home in the rain.
The Fortuitous Stop
I also wanted to to stop for a selfish reason. I wanted to reacquaint myself with some heroes of mine, which I will tell you about tomorrow. But unbeknownst to me I would also meet a Goddess or two on the trip.
I stopped for lunch in Independence, Missouri (That should give you a hint about the heroes I was coming to see). I asked for recommendations after visiting the heroes and was told Cafe Verona was a great choice. It was very cold out so I was happy to sit next to this arrangement in the sun drenched bar area.
The Goddess and the Mortal
When I first came into the establishment, this is what I saw. Way up high was a huge reproduction of Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ (1485). And below was a woman with a Grecian/Roman look to her. She had a gold band around her hair with an elegant bun, an Aqualine profile and all around her were things that felt Roman; vases, urns, wine, etc.
The juxtaposition between the woman and Venus was just too cool not to capture. I debated what to title the image . Perhaps ‘The Two Goddesses’ would make sense. Perhaps ‘Venus and…’ and who? I didn’t know her name. I settled on ‘The Goddess and The Mortal’.
Drawing the Mortal
The mortal, who was the restaurant manager, was standing still at the bar, working on some afternoon paperwork. I took advantage of her stillness to draw and came up with this.
When she took a break and looked around I gestured to her, asking her to come over to my table. I showed her the drawing, which she liked, and I asked her to pose with it, which she graciously did.
The Mortal becomes a Goddess
I told her of my naming dilemma over the photo, that I wanted to call it ‘The Two Goddesses’ or ‘Venus and…’ but I didn’t know her name. She blushed, smiled and then said, ‘My name is Diana‘.
And that is how I met a Goddess living incognito and working in a restaurant in Independence, Missouri. One never knows who you will meet if you are willing to engage.
Here is the drawing after I completed it this morning.
And finally, since I had my good camera with me I couldn’t resist asking the one Goddess who was 3 dimensional to let me take a photo.
Diana of Verona
Part 2 tomorrow – ‘Meeting Old Heroes’
Drawing, photos and story by Marty Coleman, who enjoys meeting Heroes and Goddesses.
I am going back in time again. This time to Spain of the 18th and 19th Century. Francisco Goya was a master painter and printmaker whose work ranged from sophisticated royal portraits to illicit nudes to disturbing depictions of war and violence.
Francisco Goya – Self Portrait – 1795
Pretty and Sweet
He started out as an apprentice at age 14 and quickly moved up the ranks due to talent. He eventually came to the attention of King Charles III, becoming an artist on the royal payroll. He did pretty and sweet paintings of the Royal family to earn his keep. At least they look that way to us now. But at the time he was known for not sugar coating the looks of his subjects. He would be similar to a portrait photographer now who uses very little Photoshop on his work.
Francisco Goya – Duchess of Alba – Oil on Canvas – 1795
Francisco Goya – The Straw Manikin – oil on canvas -1792
Even while he was painting supposedly idyllic scenes he was also infusing them with sometimes satiric or critical commentary about the state of Spain.
Francisco Goya – King Charles IV of Spain and his Family – oil on canvas – 1800
The Fox in the Hen House
For example in the painting above the whole family is gathered but the Queen is in the center indicating greater power. And behind the King on the right is a painting of Lot and is daughters from the Old Testament, a very obvious allusion to corruption and perversion at the time. How he got away with these slights is a mystery, but he did.
You might be asking, why do I love this guy anyway? He looks like a pretty average painter of pretty boring Royal portraits, so what’s the big deal?
Here’s the big deal. in 1792 Goya came down with a mysterious malady, still unknown to this day, that caused him to go deaf. It led him to become withdrawn, introspective and much more willing to create images that were filled with his dreams, nightmares, disillusionments, madness and violence. These were directed at humanity, at France, at Spain, and the ceaseless political intrigue and the brutality of war. We would almost certainly not care or no much about his work if he had not turned to these subject matters so decisively. He didn’t give up his work as a painter of society and royalty, but he did work alone and intensely on images that were the complete opposite of his public image.
During my Sophomore year at Brandeis University I was able to study the prints of Goya at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. Two series really stood out to me.
The first was ‘Los Caprichos’. In these images he depicts the folly of society, satirically making fun of both the high and low.
Francisco Goya – Now They Are Sitting Well – etching/aquatint – 1799
Francisco Goya – Blow – etching – 1799
Francisco Goya – Pretty Teacher – etching – 1799
The Disasters of War
The second series that stood out even more was his ‘Disasters of War’. Spain had been invaded in 1808 by Napoleon’s army and conflict ensued for 6 years. In response Goya painted his most famous piece, as well as countless prints for his series.
Francisco Goya – The 3rd of May – oil on canvas – 1808-1814
This painting turned the corner in art from the classic world to the modern. With this image Goya inspired centuries of artists to come to be bold and unsparing in their depictions of the true nature of war.
Francisco Goya – This is Worse – etching – 1815
Francisco Goya – Bazan Grande with Dead – etching – 1814
These were not published until 35 years after his death.
The Black Paintings
Even when the fighting was over the Bourbon dynasty was restored to the throne, setting back many decades of enlightened liberal progress in Spain. Goya was distraught over this. But worse yet was the likely dementia he was starting to experience. His images became dark, disturbing treatments of not just society’s woes but his own internal struggle.
Francisco Goya – The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters – etching/aquatint – 1799
The etching above wasn’t done towards the end of his life, but it illustrates both the mental madness he might have been experiencing and his belief in reason as a bulwark against such monsters, in life and in society.
Francisco Goya – Colossus
Francisco Goya – The Colossus – oil on canvas – 1812
Francisco Goya – Saturn Devouring his Son – 1823
This image was painted on the walls inside his house, along with many others called ‘The Black Paintings’ from his later years.
I can just imagine the torment he had in his head. But the amazing thing, and the reason he is an artist I love, is he kept creating. He pushed forward and unflinchingly showed his vision of the world, for good and for bad.
The Secret Maja
And now, just so we don’t end on a completely macabre note, here are two very similar images of the same woman. They never were displayed publicly during his life but were displayed in the home of the owner and commissioner of the pieces. There is no consensus on who the woman is but some think she is the Duchess of Alba that is shown at the top of the article.
Francisco Goya – The Clothed Maja – oil on canvas – 1800
Francisco Goya – The Nude Maja – oil on canvas – 1800
It was quite the scandal for him to have painted the nude in the first place, but it was even moreso because there was no pretense of mythology or religion. It was an image of a real woman, not a long gone historical figure. It’s probably the first major European painting to be painted and presented in this way since the Roman era.
The images in this article are all from the fantastic site ‘WikiPainting‘. I highly recommend exploring it.
If you would like to read more about Goya I would recommend starting here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art page about him. Of course you will find the most information about him in Spain, primarily at the Prado Museum where many of his masterpieces are on display.
I watched a TV segment about Edward Albee recently. He is the Pulitzer Prize winning playright whose most famous work is ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’. The interviewer was asking him if he considered that the subject matter would be offensive to some. His response was, yes he knew it might be but that the play was telling him what needed to be in it, not people who may or may not be offended by it.
Art Creating Itself
That is how it is with me as well. My imagination starts somewhere and then once I put pen to paper the images tells me where to go and what to do. It tells me what it wants to be. The more I listen to that the better the work. The more I listen to a possible future offended person the more I will create something self-censored, something that looks like someone else’s work, not my own.
That is why I often draw nudes. The content and message in the depiction of a nude says something I want to say. Clothing the person would take that element of the idea away and if I bow to that pressure I am diminishing my power as an artist to create something expressive and valuable. If someone is offended or interprets the work in ways I don’t anticipate that is ok, I even like hearing about that and learning from it. But I can’t try to extrapolate what that might be in advance just to save someone somewhere a possible hard thought or offensive reaction.
You Creating Yourself
So it is with creating your whole self as well as a work of art. Chisel and hammer out who you want to be, not who you would be if you offended no one. Because if you turn yourself into who someone else wants you to be, you become hard to know, admire and love. The world ends up seeing a watered down you, diluted with someone else’s ideas of who you should be instead of the full flavored you. And you’ll end up offending someone anyway.
Drawing and Commentary by Marty Coleman, who is who he is.
I first came across Robert Irwin while I was visiting Minneapolis for an art conference when I was in my 20s. I took some time off and went to the Walker Art Center, one of the best museums in North America that I had heard about for many years. This is what I saw.
Robert Irwin – Untitled – 1968-69
If it’s hard for you to figure out what it is you are looking at, it’s on purpose. It was slightly less hard in person and that is what made it so profound for me. I had come across that incredible creative moment when something skews your understanding of space, of what is real, of what it is you are actually seeing.
What you are looking at is a convex plexiglass disk that is out from the wall. It is painted and lit so that it looks as if it is hovering in space. Then it disappears and is flat tones on a wall. The it comes back and is pushing out towards you with power. It was amazing to just stand there and get lost in it’s visual everythingness.
Shortly thereafter I learned of a biography written about Irwin and found it.
The book told the story of his creative art journey from the disk you see above through his work as a master within the ‘Light and Space’ movement in art. The work in the book was incredible and I was hooked. The book is now one of my treasured possessions because it contains the autographs of both the author and Mr. Irwin. I will return to the story of the book after showing you some of his work.
Robert Irwin – Untitled – 1968
Robert Irwin – Untitled – Installation view
Here’s another example of that same mysterious, disorienting visual balancing act Irwin does between dimension and flatness, solidity and ethereality.
Robert Irwin – Old Post Office, Washington D.C.
Irwin started to move out from the gallery and put work in larger, less traditional art spaces. These panels hang in the middle of the atrium and both stand out and disappear depending on your location and the light at the time.
Robert Irwin – Violet Running Form
This is a very playful piece. It’s in a beautiful stand of Eucalyptus trees on the UC San Diego campus. It is a blue chain link fence that starts at a height twice as high as the normal person. Obviously it plays off the idea of utility but it also plays with the light that come into the grove and one’s perception of the color that is normally there in the trees, leaves and air.
I had the pleasure of coming across this art piece unaware when I took Caitlin to visit UCSD as a possible college location. I had seen the photos of it many years before in the book but completely forgot that it was on campus. We just happened to walk through the Eucalyptus grove and there it was. It really did change the beauty of the space in wonderful ways.
Robert Irwin – 1°2°3°4° – 1997
Robert Irwin – 1°2°3°4° – 1997
Irwin loves to isolate and divide while keeping something unified. It’s his way of saying look at all of this and look at just this at the same time. I love that about his work.
Robert Irwin – Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow Blue – 2006
Later in his career he moved into using other elements to define space and light. Here he is using solid panels that appear light and heavy at the same time. The top ones levitate but also are dangerous in their percieved weight. Where do you stand, what do you think about walking in and around the space? The answers say more about you than the art.
Robert Irwin – Getty Gardens
Robert Irwin – Getty Gardens
Irwin took on a huge commission when he agreed to design the gardens surrounding the new Getty Museum in the Santa Monica Hills overlooking Los Angeles. As you can see, he was able to use completely non-art world material and create an amazing visual space that still insists on confronting your understanding of space and light in a way that both illuminates and enriches.
In the end, for all the intellectual and art-bound theories and philosophies I might find in Irwin’s work, in the end I am left with a true and unadulterated joy in the sensations of the world around us. Irwin is able to present us with a visual world that makes us think and makes us smile. How cool is that? I can think of no greater art achievement one can really hope to make.
The Story of the Book
Ok, back to the book. In 1976 I continued my education at University of California, Santa Barbara. While I was there I had a girlfriend for a while. Here is a picture of her a few years later visiting my then wife and me in San Jose.
While Toni was visiting was us I showed her the book about Robert Irwin. She laughed and looked at us funny and said, “You know that Lawrence, the author, is my brother, right?” No, I did not know that. Yes, I knew her last name and yes I saw his last name on the cover, I just never made the connection. So, I sent the book back with her to LA where she lived so she could hunt down her brother and get him to autograph it for me. She sent it back to me a few months later with inscription you see below.
You may have noticed that Robert Irwin also signed it. Here’s how that came down. I had attended San Jose State University as a graduate student pursuing my MFA. A year after I graduated I heard he was coming to school to give a guest lecture. I was pretty psyched, and if possible, meet him and have him sign my book. When the day finally arrived I had a dilemma. I was not able to go due to my work schedule at the restaurant where I worked. But, I could go to the very beginning of the lecture and perhaps meet him beforehand if I timed it right.
I was on the second story of the student union building standing looking over the edge into the large central atrium area, waiting for him to arrive for the lecture from the Art Department. When he came in he was surrounded by at least a dozen or more people, including the chairman of the department and many professors, including a number who had been my advisors. I was bummed about the crowd, figuring I would not get a chance right them to meet him. I saw them disappear under the walkway I was on to come up the stairs.
When they arrived at the top of the stairs they were all there except Mr. Irwin. I immediately asked the Chairman where he was and he said he had stayed downstairs to find a bathroom. That was all I needed to hear. I rushed down the stairs and found him walking down a hallway, indeed looking for a bathroom. I introduced myself, directed him to the bathroom and went in with him. We stood at side by side urinals taking a leak and talking. Luckily for me we both had to go really bad so it lasted a long time. I was able to to tell him of my admiration for his work, and the book, explaining about knowing Lawrence’s sister. I told him my status as a recent MFA grad, my working 3 jobs, including 2 part time teaching gigs at community colleges. He was incredibly gracious, especially considering we were peeing together.
Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
When we were done we continued to talk and I asked him if he would autograph the book, which he did. He also gave me encouraging advice about how to deal with the first few years out of graduate school, how to work through hard things and keep creating worthy art at the same time. I then led him back up to the auditorium and to the front of the audience so he could give his lecture. I meanwhile skeedaddled to the restaurant to work my shift. I didn’t hear the lecture but I gained more than I had hoped!
If you are interested in learning more about Robert Irwin, you can check out these resources. There is a huge body of work he has done that will amaze you.
Have you ever been in a critique? I went to Cranbrook Academy of Art for graduate school back in the early 80s. I was in the printmaking department and once a week we would have critiques with the entire group (18 students). They were brutal and if I had been illustrating what it was really like in this drawing she would not just have her hand and foot gone but her head as well. How bad was it? I was denied admission for a second and final year because my work wasn’t good enough in my professor’s eyes. We had moved 2,000 miles across the country for me to go to school there and a year later I was out and we had to go back to California. I started over and eventually got my graduate degree, an MFA, from San Jose State University. But make no mistake, I was chewed up and spit out and it wasn’t fun.
But, in truth, it was nature at it’s best. That means it was not a punishment for me and those who stayed for the second year didn’t get a reward. We all got consequences. I reaped the consequences of artistic and personal immaturities and arrogances on my part. I reaped the consequences of unhelpful habits on my part. I reaped the consequences of personality conflicts with a professor. I reaped the consequences of a system that I thought then, and I think now, had some serious flaws in it. But the totality of that experience had very little to do with rewards granted and punishments imposed in an arbitrary way. It had everything to do with cause and effect, action and reaction, truth and consequence.
What about you? Do you think you deserve to be punished or rewarded for something you have done? Or can you take the more neutral, less morally condemning view, that you are merely suffering the consequences?
Drawing by Marty Coleman, who had to find a picture of a lion eating something to get it right.
Quote by Robert G. Ingersoll, 1833-1899, American orator and political leader. He is a forgotten gem of the golden age of American speech making. He is well worth investigating.
Trivia of the Day
If a saint is depicted with three balls, who is he?