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August 28, 2006

Alicia and the Union Jack (detail) , Grier Horner, 2006

This photo detail of Alicia and the Union Jack gives an idea of its texture.

(See the August 26 entry) It was painted on an an old work of mine called Magic. That consisted of the word magic written hundreds of times by dripping acrylic paint over every section of the canvas. So the surface was very tactile, almost topographic. Painting over it created effects I haven't gotten before. Pretty cool, don't you think? I'm going to create similar surfaces with gesso for some subsequent paintings. I'm heading for the studio now.

I'm back. Four hours have flown by. I couldn't get the gesso to flow right. It just splattered. So I ended up pouring gold and Vienna red gesso directly on the canvas and then mushing it around with a paint stirrer. Then I scribbled on the surface with a stick. Don't know exactly what I have. One thing it isn't, is the surface I was aiming for.

After I messed around with the paint I drove to North Adams to look at the Kolok Gallery in the old Windsor Mill. They have a great space and the current show is a knockout. The artist is Shuli Sade. She works over her gelatin silver prints of industrial relics with tar. Some of them are so good its scary. Read about her on and on, which is Charles Giuliano's new web site about the arts in the Berkshires, an offshoot of his web magazine, Maverick Arts ( In fact I swiped the Sade photo below from Berkshire Fine Arts.

I'm sorry but you can't reach those web sites - which are well worth reaching - from here. I can't figure out how to put in links. Have to consult Marita, this site's designer.

Getting back to the subject, Kurt Kolok says he wants his gallery to be one with an edge. I can't decide whether Sade's work is edgy. But it is certainly beautiful - sometimes breathtakingly - in an apocalyptical way. Check it out.

Suli Sade, Eagle Boston, at Kolok Gallery


August 26, 2006

Remember the painting of Alicia I was showing you in stages?

(See the Aug. 5, Aug. 1 and July 30) Well here's the finished painting. Or almost finished.

I'm still agonizing over whether to tone down the liquor bottles at the bottom right and the beer in the cooler. Then they'd be more like the ones you see in the space formed by her left arm. I may tone down the cooler's shelves, too. If you look at the Aug. 5 stage, you can see how darkening the flag improved things.

I really like this painting. Of course I almost always like the last painting I've done. The honeymoon doesn't always last.




August 25, 2006

Hannah in Winter by Grier Horner, Brien Center, Pittsfield

When you enter the Brien Center offices in Pittsfield these days the first thing you see is this painting of Hannah and Laura over Brenda McWhirt's desk.

As far as I know, know, no one has fled after opening the door. The Brien Center is a county-wide non-profit agency that deals with mental health and substance abuse. Annually the center works with about 10,000 residents, including me. I'm also on the board.

"Ah ha," you're thinking, "if he's on the board..."

Relax. I didn't sell the paintings to the center. They're on long-term loan. The retiring executive director, Marge Cohan, who had seen my work, broached the subject before she left in June.

In any case, six paintings - four of Hannah and Laura, one of Linda Baker-Cimini and one of Anita McFarland - hang in their new administrative offices on Fenn Street. I love seeing them up instead of collecting dust in storage.

P.S. I told you a little about Hannah but forgot to say anything about Laura Young. Early on she was something of a ski bum, and for several years after Hannah's marriage, she was the major-domo in a classy Italian restaurant in Pittsfield. More recently she married Hannah's husband's best man. They are fascinating young women, idealists who want their lives to have purpose. I had a great year working with them.


Aug. 24, 2006

(continued from Aug. 21)

About 10 days went by and I hadn't heard from them.

I'd pretty much given up hope they would. But then they did and we set up the first of what turned out to be many photo shooting sessions.

Over the course of a year, I took more than 600 photos of them and painted a dozen pictures. I had a good time doing it and I think they did too. I not only liked them, I admired them. They were free spirits with several years of adventures behind them. Now they wanted to do some good in the world. Hannah is now the mother of three children and works with her husband William Levi in his Operation Nehemiah Missions International. It raises money in America and uses it to aid the war-torn Christian South in the Sudan. One of Hannah's favorite projects was putting a medical facility in a truck to elude the enemy, which had destroyed permanent medical facilities. Hannah has been to Sudan, as has her father, Robert Kirkman of Pittsfield, who now plays an active role in this organization. To find out more go to This portrait of Hannah with her dreadlocks piled on her head, hangs in my living room

(To be continued)


August 21, 2006


I've been talking about Courbet and Whistler's model for the last few days. So I thought maybe it was time to talk about two of mine.

I met Hanna and Laura at Juice and Java in Pittsfield while I was eating with Judy Katz and Tom Morton. In walked two very attractive young women dressed in what I would call neo-Hippie. Skirts over slacks, layers of sweaters instead of coats, nose rings, etc.

With them was a boy about 10. I figured the girls were in their late teens. They sat at a table near us and looked like they were having a wonderful time, including the boy in their conversations. I told my friends I would love to paint them.

"So go over and ask them if they'll model for you," Judy said.

"I don't have the nerve," I said.

She gave me a verbal push out the door and I went over and introduced myself. They got up, shook my hand, told me their names.

They were very nice to an old guy who was telling them he'd like to paint their pictures and talking about how much he paid an hour. I didn't ask for their phone numbers, figuring that would be that, but wrote mine down and gave it to them.

Back at the house, I told my wife Babbie about it.

"Do you think they'll call?" I asked her.

"After they talk to their mothers, the only thing they'll call is 911," she said.

(To be continued)



August 18, 2006


Here are some of the paintings of Jo Hiffernan. Whistler puts her in white, Courbet puts her in bed. From the portraits of her by both artists, it's obvious that the paler woman is Hiffernan in the painting below. But from the coloring, the woman in the foreground would appear to be the subject in The Origin of the World. (See yesterday's post.) Courbet said he was interested in honesty. Whistler said he was most interested in the arrangement of colors in harmony. The White Girl was controversial when it was first shown. Of course The Sleepers lifted a few eyebrows as well. Of the paintings, the only one I've actually seen is the White Girl, which is at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Gustave Courbet, The Sleepers, 1866


August 16, 2006

Joanna Hiffernan was a lovely Irish girl who was painted by two of the 19th century's young lions.

James McNeill Whistler painted her as a demure beauty in a flowing white dress in White Girl. His friend, Gustave Courbet, painted her without the dress.

Hiffernan, a witty Irish redhead who was also a drew was in roughly the same position as Ms. Hiffernan. But the result carried none of Courbet's voltage. It illustrates what Mark Milloff, a painter and teacher, had told me: You don't get intimate paintings of nudes from group sessions. I was one of about eight people sketching the model in Contraband. Of course, if I had been alone with her, the result wouldn't compete with Courbet's.

Courbet's highly charged work, The Origin of the World, is shown below. I bring it up because I thought of it in relation to my Aug. 10 post which showed my painting Contraband. The model I painted, was Whistler's mistress for six years.

In 1866 Whistler, who had introduced her to Courbet, took off for Valparaiso and painted the harbor. Hiffernan took off for Paris. At that point Courbet's paintings became increasingly erotic. She was in both The Sleepers and Origin of the World.

Not surprisingly when Whistler returned, he and Jo split up, and his friendship with Gustave ended rancorously. Never one for convention, Jo at that point adopted Whistler's son, whose mother was a parlor maid.

Courbet, a radical, was a part of a Paris uprising in 1871 and imprisoned for six months. In 1872 he refused the Legion of Honor from Napoleon III. That increased his popularity with the people.


August 15, 2006

This is my other copper boat. Hardly a tramp steamer, it's the open whaling boat I was talking about yesterday.

It's coming to you by popular demand. (That may be something of an overstatement. But a reader in Louisiana did say she liked yesterday's boat.)

Maybe, if you look hard, you can see the harpoon on the port side of the bow. It's line is coiled just in front of the heart. This could be the line that carried Ahab overboard.

Every whaler worth its salt carries a heart in the stern. I'm not just making it up. Don't you remember that section in Moby Dick? Reread Chapter 48, The First Lowering.



August 14 , 2006

On the subject of tramp steamers, this one, really more of a tug, is made of copper sheeting held together with rivets. Copper is great looking stuff.

Called Cargo, this piece is part of my Scarlet Letter series. Is that a stretch? Anyway, the thing that ties it into that series is the heart being lowered into the hold.

Linda Baker-Cimini, the artist I often used as a model, calls it the love boat.

I also made an open whale boat, with harpoon and cargo - another heart. I was thinking of Moby Dick at the time. Love may be the white whale many of us pursue, often with dire results.

A guy Gale Sheehy interviewed in Passages told her, after coming off a disastrous affair, that he never wanted to fall in love again. In one of her books Sheeny had a frog joke that gets to that point:

An older man is walking down the street when he hears a frog talking. The frog says, "If you pick me up and kiss me, I'll turn into a beautiful woman."

The man picks up the frog and puts it in his pocket.

"Aren't you going to kiss me?" the frog complains. "I'll turn into a ravishing woman and you can have me all you want."

"I'd rather have a talking frog in my pocket."


August 12 , 2006

Mark Milloff, Stripping the Whale, 96" x 144", Pastel on paper, 1985

This amazing painting is one of a series Mark Milloff did on Moby Dick. It hangs in the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. Debra Bricker Balken ran the museum thenand acquired the painting the mid-1980s. It was at only is it a wonderful piece, it is place appropriate. Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick while he lived in Pittsfield. Mount Greylock, which he could see from the room where he wrote, supposedly reminded him of the whale.

At the time Milloff was teaching at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield. (He is now an associate professor at the Rhode Island School of Design.)

He is an inspiring teacher. I took a couple of his courses there just before retiring as the associate editor of The Berkshire Eagle eight years ago. After that I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

Once when my son Michael and I were looking at this piece, he pointed out that a shark is taking aim at Queequeg's foot. I had never noticed that before. I guess I can be forgiven for missing it amid the painting's churning frenzy as the Pequoid's crew strips the whale while fighting off the blood-crazed sharks.

Milloff has said he read the novel 30 times. Mike had read it over and over himself. I've done it three times. It's a great novel and one of my favorite pieces of art.

The reproduction here was taken from Elizabeth Schultz's fascinating book "Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth Century American Art". (In the illustration, which is the book's centerfold, you can see the vertical dividing lines of the three panes of glass protecting the surface. My reproduction suffers from scanner glare at the fold.)


August 10 , 2006

Contraband, Collage, paper and canvas, oil and acrylic. about 53" x 50", 2002

Let's jump from the tramp steamer in the parking lot to a series I call Tramp Steamer. It's origin was a summer of drawing nudes. Each week after the session I would do paintings derived from the sketches. In the fall I drove down to Providence to show them to a former teacher, Mark Milloff. He wasn't terribly impressed. When a bunch of artists are in a room sketching a model, he said, the results lack the intimacy and sexual charge you often get in one-on-one situations.

I laid them all out on the floor when I got home. I'm afraid I had to agree with him.

So I set them aside. In the months they gathered dust, my subconscious must have been at work. One day I started using them as an element in the tramp steamers - a phrase I like so much I used it as the title of one section of my web site. I gessoed the nudes - they were acrylic on paper - to canvas and then I would paint a section of ship's hull around them. Often I used the hulls to cover up the worst sections of the paintings. As the series evolved, I started giving the hulls more dimension by forming them out of layers of canvas.

In my mind the nudes were contraband hidden in the holds of ships, whose hulls my x-ray eyes could penetrate. I did a bunch of them. One that I donated to the Hancock Shaker Village for at a fund-raising auction sold - to the staff's surprise. A member of the band bought it.

So the pile of nudes on paper dwindled down to a precious few. I hate to see work go to waste.

Did I hear you say, "In this case it was a waste to recycle." Some might be tempted to think of this post as Portrait of the Artist as a Dirty of Man. But doing the sketching, and subsequent paintings, was pretty antiseptic, as Mark suggested.


August 9, 2006

This is Long Division. It's one of the paintings that came out of the photos of Anita at the boat. I wanted to do a very large painting of her, maybe 10 feet high. But I couldn't manage that because I have an eight-foot ceiling in my studio. So I decided I could do a 10 footer by dividing Anita in half.

Hence the title, Long Division. Since I was dividing her in two, I decided to do the boat in two takes as well.

I painted this in 1998. About that time I met an art lover who had been on the board of a big mid-West museum. We met at a talk by Tom Krens. He had gone from running the Williams College Museum to running and expanding the Guggenheim, including building the breakthrough museum at Bilbao. Krens had initiated the idea for MASS MoCA in North Adams. Against staggering odds, MoCA was brought to life under the resolute leadership of Joe Thompson, the director. Pivotal roles were played by North Adams Mayor John Barrett, then state Sen. Jane Swift and Mike Dukakis and Bill Weld when they were governor, as well as Jennifer Trainer Thompson.

Anyway, after Krens' talk, the art lover and I had coffee and I told her about what I was doing. She came and took a look at Long Division.

I was delighted when she said she wanted to buy it but would have to try it out at home first.

After it was in her condo a few days, she called me and said it wasn't going to work. It was so - I guess garish is the operative word - that it overpowered the rest of her collection and her decor. But she graciously left it up a big cocktail party she was throwing, and invited Babbbie and me. Which was a lot of fun.

It was at the top of her stairway, which you had to climb to get to the bar. So everyone saw it. And people talked about it. No one bought it and I still have it. If someone offered $750 they could have it. Man, that's a bargain - 21 cents a square inch. At that rate you could buy the Mona Lisa for $125.16. Or Jackson Pollock's 16-foot long Blue Poles for $3427.20.

By the way, when the National Museum in Australia paid $1.3 million for Blue Poles in 1973 it created a sensation. At the time it was the highest price ever paid for a piece of contemporary art. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam faced intense questioning in parliament. The first question was from Doug Anthony who wondered why the museum bought such a work, a piece whose merit "I can not comprehend."

In reply, in what must be one of art's great putdowns, Whitlam said: "If Australian galleries were limited by the comprehension of the right honourable gentleman they would be very bare and archaic indeed."

Back to recent times. I had an arrangement with Anita that I would give her 5 percent of whatever the boat paintings sold for. I have the same informal arrangement with my other models. So far it hasn't made them rich.


August 8 , 2006

So you found it farfetched when I said I'd show you Anita in front of a tramp steamer with its bow jutting out of a parking lot.

Well here's the proof. This is one of about 120 photos I took of her one summer morning at the Coltsville shopping center in Pittsfield. The year was 1997.

I had just seen the movie Titanic. I asked Anita if she would be interested in playing the Kate Winslet role in the movie. I was thinking about the scene when she was standing, arms outstretched, with Leonardo DiCaprio at the bow of the ship.

To my surprise, she said she would like to. Anita had bought a long red velvet gown from a thrift shop and thought it would be perfect. As a backup, I suggested we could also take pictures of her in a miniskirt.

She said she'd wear an outfit that sailors would like to see on their return from the sea. And she did. As you can see in this shot.

I picked her up at Kripalu, a Lenox retreat where she lived with her husband. At the time they were among perhaps 200 disciples who

lived there. Kripalu's guru, Yogi Amrit Desai, was eventually kicked out for having affairs with some of the women there despite the fact he was pledged to celibacy. It threw the place into an uproar and now it is a non-religious refuge for the practice of Yoga.

On the ride to Pittsfield, Anita told me that she would like to be in the movies. And while she had seemed bored as a painting model, she came alive in front of the camera.

Anita changed poses so fast I had to put the Nikon on fast fire. Any sailor home from the sea would have felt her siren call. During the shot, which must have lasted 25 minutes, two guys in a pickup drove past real slow and took it all in. They whistled. Anita was unfazed. And I got a bunch of great shots. This is one of my favorites.



August 7, 2006

On the subject of painting over old stuff, this is another example. But unlike the start-from-scratch approach I took with the Alicia painting I blogged about last week, this time I simply repainted the picture that was already there. I think the original was done in 1999. Anita McFarland is the subject. Recently I stumbled across the painting, which I had forgotten. A friend wants a painting for her office so I decided to redo this one, which was a mess.

I almost had it finished before I charged ahead with the Alicia painting I showed you in stages last week. (I haven't tackled Stage Four yet. Hope I haven't left you breathless in anticipation.) I attacked the Anita makeover with pallet knives and fingers - my normal approach in the last few years. But this time the paint is much thicker, three dimensional and, in places, crusty.

I hadn't used that approach since 1999. In fact, the last time I did was on a nude painting of the same model.

The question this painting raises in my mind is this: Is it considered poor form to switch back and forth in the way you apply paint? I suspect the answer is yes. But I fly under the art world's radar - unfortunately - so no critic is going to notice.

Anita was the model for a lot of my paintings in the late '90s, including "Anita and the Polar Bears" in my July 25 post. Starring with her in a number of them was the tramp steamer jutting bow up out of the parking lot at the Coltsville shopping center. I'll tell you about that next time - unless something else pops up.


August 5 , 2006

This is Stage Three. The entire canvas is covered with paint but still isn't finished. Remember how I was having trouble figuring out what to do with the space over her head? Well I thought of the Union Jack that John has tacked flat on the ceiling. A large flag. So I transferred it to the wall. It seemed a good background for a scene from the Man of Kent. Then I added a couple bottles of liquor on top of the beer cooler to de-emphasize the flag a little.

I enjoyed doing the bottles. I've got to count them. Maybe I have 99 bottles of beer on the wall.

I had one mishap with the painting. Unless you think the whole painting's a mishap. Then I had two. I've been working outdoors under the canopy behind my studio. (There's no place to paint in the studio because the walls are covered with the Scarlet Letter paintings and I paint against the wall.) Thursday afternoon I was moving this painting back inside when I had a run-in with a canopy support and the top of the painting banged down on my head. My right eyebrow and forehead were Union Jack red as was a big patch of my hair. I ended up using turpentine to get the paint out of my hair.

Turpentine as it turns out leaves something to be desired as a scalp conditioner. My scalp burned for half an hour, even after taking a shower. The sacrifices we make for art.



August 3 , 2006

Judith Lerner is a good friend of mine. She grew up with parents who knew art and artists. Art is like breathing for her. So it's no surprise she mounts monthly shows at a downtown culinary mainstay, Susan Gordon's Bagles Too.

This month its Ellen Jaffe, whose mixed media paintings light the place up. The reception is this evening from 5 to 7 at Bagles Too. (Please make the jump to the next block of type. Technical problems beyond my control.)

Judith's the curator. I'm the hangman. She figures out what artisto get, which paintings to show, which paintings to pair. Then she turns to me. I put them up. It usually takes four or five hours. Sometimes I ask ask her if we couldn't keep the shows up for two months instead of one. Being the hangman can be time consuming. Usually it takes four or five hours to put up the show.

This show's called "Heat: Summer Places." And Joffe's work lives up to the title. You can feel the heat bouncing off North Truro's landmark cottages. You can feel it emanating from a sunbaked golden field dotted with trees. And it radiates from the painting I've shown here. The paintings are pared down, direct and hot.

Ellen Joffe-Halpern lives in Williamstown and teaches studio art at Miss Hall's in Pittsfield and at the Community College of Vermont in Bennington.


August 1, 2006

In Stage Two Alicia's dress and hands have been painted in. Next I'll start working on the background. In the painting her dress is actually blacker than it appears here.

The work on the dress is a combination of brush, fingers and pallet knife.

Still pondering what to do to fill the space over her head. It could be bottles of liquor - she worked in a pub, the Man of Kent. Or maybe some of the pennants the owner, John Stoate, uses to bring a little bit of England to his establishment. Then again it could be wine glasses hanging in one of those racks.

Whatever I put in I'm going to have to be careful not to overpower her.




Seth Harwood, writer

Leslie, poet

Joe Goodwin, painter

Lisa Reinke, painter

John Mitchell, commentary

Charles Guiliano, MAVERIC, art critic

Saatchi Gallery


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