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Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

February 27, 2007

Angel of Incineration with Child, Oil on collaged canvas, 68.5"x74".

This painting, which I last showed you February 23, is getting close to what I want. I toned the wings down, darkened the angel's body and did some other stuff.

I have a friend who doesn't see how I can work on the Dresden Firebombing series. My wife wonders the same thing. Sometimes I think I'm callous. When I started looking into the firebombing of Dresden in World War II, I felt a sense of...what? Rage? Initially, maybe. But reality tempers that. Who's responsible for this outrage? The Americans and British? What about the Germans and the Japanese? So with me it ends up more of a feeling of great sadness and futility and wonder at what we're capable of.

So I don't paint with a slashing sense of anger. I think that the process of painting and all the technical and artistic decisions that go into it pushes anger aside much of the time.

And working on the paintings doesn't depress me. What does depress me, is that Dresden, 9/11, My Lai, Pearl Harbor, Baghdad, Sarajevo, Guernica, it all keeps happening over and over.

Historically, it's what we do. We as mankind, not as Americans. We keep killing each other, often in the name of God. Sometimes for good reasons. Sometimes for bad reasons. Sometimes, as in Iraq, for reasons that turn out to be false.

During Vietnam, the kids wanted us to make love, not war. Unfortunately, in the long run nations are better at the latter.




February 25, 2007

Three crows perched in the snowy branches of the birch outside the living room window when I came downstairs after Thursday night's snowfall.

A transcendent beauty surrounded the house. The photo at the left shows the woods across the street. It runs for several miles. This shot was taken from the addition. The YMCA, which operates its Ponterril recreation facility there on over 70 acres wanted to build 375 timeshare units there. While this tree line might have remained intact, the number of units seemed overwhelming to our neighborhood. We fought the zoning change and won. Condos will probably be built there eventually.

The white pines, by the way, had been planted by the Y's Men's Club, we were told, to be sold off as Christmas trees. Although they were never harvested, a few found their way into our house before they got impossibly tall.

At the left is a sugar maple along the same tree line. When we moved in in 1965, the street was lined with maples whose branches formed an arch over the road. But most of them have died. This one and its neighbor are in bad shape, but the Y claims they don't pose a danger. Palliated woodpeckers are doing their best to chop them down. It'll be the woodpeckers or the wind.


February 23, 2007

Angel of Incineration with Child, Oil on collaged canvas, 68.5"x74".

Now the painting is almost done. I think. Maybe it's even finished. I'll have to take a look at it tomorrow and figure out where I'm going with it. I think I may tone down the wings.

This is the one I showed you as a gold gessoed canvas on February 4 and with wings sketched in on February 7. I combined the memorial plaque that I used in In Memoriam (January 27)and Dresden Mon Amour(November 19) with the canvas cutouts I've used for several of the other paintings. It would be lovely, wouldn't it, if the angel had the Nicole Peskin wing (February 15)?


February 21, 2007

August Schreitmueller's sandstone sculpture "The Goodness" looks over destroyed Dresden from the Town Hall Tower in 1945.

"Then the bombing began again. This time there was no pause between detonations and the rocking was so severe, we lost our balance, and were tossed around in the basement like a bunch of ragdolls."

That is from an account of the Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany, in February 1945. It was written years later by a survivor, a 20-year-old woman identified only as Elizabeth, for her children.

"At times the basement walls were separated and lifted up," Elizabeth continued. "We could see the flashes of the fiery explosions outside. There were a lot of fire bombs and canisters of phosphorous being dumped everywhere. The phosphorus was a thick liquid that burned upon exposure to air and as it penetrated cracks in buildings, it burned wherever it leaked through. The fumes from it were poisonous. When it came leaking down the basement steps somebody yelled to grab a beer (there was some stored where we were), soak a cloth, a piece of your clothing, and press it over your mouth and nose. The panic was horrible. Everybody pushed, shoved and clawed to get a bottle.

"II had pulled off my underwear and soaked the cloth with the beer and pressed it over my nose and mouth. The heat in that basement was so severe it only took a few minutes to make that cloth bone dry. I was like a wild animal, protecting my supply of wetness. I don’t like to remember that.

“The bombing continued. I tried bracing myself against a wall. That took the skin off my hands – the wall was so hot. The last I remember of that night is loosing my balance, holding onto somebody but falling and taking them too, with them falling on top of me. I felt something crack inside. While I lay there I had only one thought – to keep thinking. As long as I know I’m thinking, I am alive, but at some point I lost consciousness.

“The next thing I remember is feeling terribly cold. I then realized I was lying on the ground, looking into the burning trees. It was daylight. There were animals screeching in some of them. Monkeys from the burning zoo. I started moving my legs and arms. It hurt a lot but I could move them. Feeling the pain told me that I was alive. I guess my movements were noticed by a soldier from the rescue and medical corps.

“The corps had been put into action all over the city and it was they who had opened the basement door from the outside. Taking all the bodies out of the burning building. Now they were looking for signs of life from any of us. I learned later that there had been over a hundred and seventy bodies taken out of that basement and twenty seven came back to life. I was one of them – miraculously!"

Elizabeth's writing was included in an account that Edda West of Canada, also a Dresden survivor - she was 3 at the time - wrote in 2003 for Current Concerns, described as an opposition newspaper from Zurich, Switzerland. For the full text go to

I can't vouch for the authenticity of its authorship. But it has the ring of truth. You can imagine the horror of that prolonged attack that left untold thousands dead - mostly women, children and old men. I could show you photos but they're too grizzly.

For another survivor's story, this one of a boy, see my Nov. 9 post.


February 19, 2007

This is our house from the back. We put the contemporary addition on in 1970. And in the late 1980s we built the small addition that juts out from the rear wall on the left.

Back in the days when I was thinking I'd rather be an architect rather than a reporter, I designed the first addition. It was built by a friend of ours, Tom Renton. I did the shingling, laid the wide-plant floors, broke one of the expensive custom windows (see Feb. 2 post) and other useful things. His crew did the rest. Last fall I replaced the shingles under the clearstory windows.

I built the small addition - 2' x 10' - myself. It opened up the dinning room, which was about 10' x 11'. With its $2,500 French doors and only 20 square feet of space, my brother-in-law David Bates used to joke that it was the most expensive addition per square foot in America. It involved gutting the dinning room, putting in new wiring, new insulation and new plaster board. The addition is cantilevered out from the foundation. The building inspector made me bring the joists all the way into the center of the house.

Doing that meant extra work. But it was worth it. In heavy winds our house used to creak like an old ship in a gale. After we put on that addition it never creaked again. I miss the groaning. It provided atmosphere. But I worry a lot less about the house's solidity. The sliding glass doors at the basement level lead into my studio. When Tom built the addition, that section of the back yard was graded to be one-story below ground level so we'd have light in that room. The hole actually was a lot deeper than that but was filled with gravel to serve as a giant dry well. We call it "The Pit."

The smaller photo is of the front of the house. The main house was built around 1930. We bought it in 1966 after renting it for a year when we moved to Pittsfield from North Adams to take jobs at The Eagle and Berkshire Medical Center. These shots were taken after we were hit by 15 inches of snow on Valentine's day. The birch tree whose health I have written about can be seen at the far end of the house in both shots.


February 17, 2007

Howard Hodgkin, You Are My Sunshine, Oil on Wood, 2002.

The Yale Center for British Art in New Haven has a smashing show of paintings by Howard Hodgkin. We went Tuesday, Babbie, me and Nancy, and had a great time looking, talking and eating.

I really didn't know Hodgkin's work until I saw an add for the show and looked him up. I'm a big fan. Of course any artist who isn't afraid of the color orange is close to my heart. But his bold and brilliant brushwork, his embrace of the frame, his depth of field, his passion all pull me in.

I mean look at those things in Grief, at the right. It's all there. A number of viewers see it as 9/11, we were told. And that's one of the things about Hodgkin's paintings. You may see imagery. Or you may see abstraction. But either way you see power and beauty. Hodgkin has said he paints "representational pictures of emotional situations." headlined a 2003 story on Hodgkin "The Color of Turmoil." That says a lot in four words.

In a review in today's New York Times, Michael Kimmelman says this show "is about as beautiful an exhibition of new paintings as I have seen in a while."

Kimmelman concludes: "Constable talked about 'melancholy grandeur.' Mr. Hodgkin conjures up the same phrase."

Hodgkin is regarded as one of Britain's most important living artists. His great-great-grandfather, Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866) researched the lymphatic cancer later known as Hodgkin's Disease, the Artnet article pointed out.

The artist, born in 1932, was knighted in the early 1990s. He is Sir Gordon Howard Eliot Hodgkin. When I'm knighted, it will be Sir Winfield Grier Horner IV. I got a kick out of listening to snippets of a BBC interview with Hodgkin. He's got this great voice and he's not gunning for Miss Congeniality. You can listen at:

The show will be up through April 1. An added bonus is taking in the museum itself, built in 1977 and designed by Louis Kahn, who died of a heart attack in Penn Station three years before it was completed. Across the street is Kahn's Yale Art Gallery, also a fine museum, and his first masterpiece.

His son Nathaniel did the moving 2003 documentary, My Architect, about his quest to learn about his father, a man who lived an unconventional domestic life, to put it mildly.


February 15, 2007

Nicole Peskin, Guest Blogger

Nicole Peskin's Angel Wing suspended in her Pittsfield studio. Below, the wing against dark background takes on rich coloring. Below that is Big Angel, and at the bottom, Self Portrait as an Angel.

Nicole Peskin's studio is located in an old mill that overlooks the river in Pittsfield. She formerly was part of the Boston and New York art communities but moved to the country 8 years ago. Take a look at her website Nicole's the author of today's post.

So, as I was saying, I don't know how the Angel imagery came to me, but it did.
The first Angel I did happened while my father was very sick in the hospital.
I didn't know at the time that he was
dying. I had a growing pile of scrap steel in the shop and one day I said,
"Its all there, she is here."

Some of parts were crushed white sheet metal from

shelving and refrigerators, and they suggested flowing fabric...

I wanted to make something tall and expansive...
so I formed a very scant armature, and then wings appeared from crushed bumper parts...and she just extended herself out into space.

Maybe I identify her more with a NIKE than any Christian imagery...I didn't grow up with religion, but being DESCENDED UPON by an IDEA, INSPIRATION, SENSE of SOME POWER to formulate and inhabit a PUZZLE, some GUIDING FORCE... was part of growing up among artists... NIKE / NICOLE. I could claim roots...
Other wings developed quite seperately...the wing is an amazing instrument, and I've been studying
all forms of wings, different kinds of birds and aircraft...and also
shattering glass and working with
chance while also trying to understand ARCHITECTURE, the organic and deliberate (and in nature who is the ARCHITECT? So the question does have a component of Supreme Designer, and who are the artists? Surely not just Narrators...)

And I always think of Duchamp and his work on glass,
and that THE BRIDES...was so shattered and we can never imagine the piece another way,
he accepted the accident...and that's a very big part, maybe the biggest. Intent/Accident.

I don't do many pieces a year. I am terribly lazy with very little self discipline. I wait all day for the immaterial components to find their way to me, which is inspiration, and then I go very hard.

Because I work in trenchant materials it's really a release of floodgates, and exhaustion.
I feel like a storage container, especially in winter! And sometimes I leave a piece for a year or two to return later with new ideas.
Nothing that no other artist does or doesn't do!


February 9, 2007

This is The Tree in Winter, which I painted in 2000. It's one of Babbie's favorites so we hung it up yesterday. This is the addition we built in 1970. It's a wonderful room with lots of light. When we get too old to climb the stairs, we'll sleep here.

That tree is one of those tough, gnarled old remnants of an ancient orchard in what is now the woods across from our house. What you're looking at on the right is the back of the same room with another one of my paintings and our black cat Evalene. You can see the role clutter plays in our lives. I keep all the art books I ever plan to look at on the orange box, and stacked on the floor next to the box.

After Tom Renton put the addition up, I built the white sofa and the orange box - my first foray into furniture making. Cutting the beautiful birch plywood with my Sears circular saw made me something of a wreck. I was afraid of ruining the 3/4 inch panels because they were so expensive. In the end it all worked out.

We planned that orange box - we were in our mid-30s then - as a giant coffee table but as something for our old age as well. Someday, we'll insert a mattress on rollers in the open end. The part of the bed that sticks out will serve as a sofa by day. At night, we'll roll the bed out. It will be a great place to sleep, sheltered by the low ceiling but opened up by the view out the sliding glass door.


February 7, 2007

Finally. It's started. The painting I just couldn't seem to get going on. Monday afternoon I sketched the wings in, the ones taken from the Angel of the Sink (see Feb. 4 post). This ends my longest case of painter's block.

She's not going to be called the Angel of the Sink. (The photos tacked to the top of the canvas are shots I took of that angel.) This will be the third in the Dresden Firebombing series focusing on the Angel of Incineration. Nations at war claim God is on their side. If that's true, He might have drafted an angel to char broil the citizenry of all those cities in Germany and Japan. In Dresden alone we and the British killed at least 30,000 people - and possibly three times that many. And most of them were the elderly and women and children. The older boys and men were off fighting World War II for Hitler.

Of course, if there is a God, and if he is good rather than pragmatic, I don't think he'd be a big fan of firebombing, or war in general.


February 5, 2007

This was shot from my kitchen window Saturday afternoon. It's part of the Inside Out series I'm taking from our windows. When we moved in in 1965, this hedgerow between our house and Joan's was basically saplings dominated by lilacs.

For years now the lilacs have been overpowered by the maples and have arched out over the lawn in a quest for light.

This shot, of course, is not what I see out the kitchen window. It is just a selected portion of it. That made me wonder if this is what I'm trying to do with these pictures. Should I be trying for the whole sweep of what you would see standing in our kitchen?


February 4, 2007

This large canvas is propped against another canvas, which in turn is propped against a step ladder, which in turn is tied to the joists to keep it from toppling over. It's typical of arrangements in my studio, a fancy name for the section of the cellar where I paint.

Here I have this big canvas - 68.5" x 74" - all primed and ready to go. And I know what I want to paint. I just can't seem to start.

About Tuesday I picked out the painting on this stretcher as the next sacrificial lamb in my push to paint over stuff that's not that great and is taking up too much room. This one was a painting of my mother and me sledding that my father had taken for a Christmas card. It must have been about 1939, still in the Depression, and I would have been 4.

I knew what I was going to paint: a giant set of wings for the Angel of Incineration. And she would be cradling a child in her arms, a child killed in the firebombing. And between the wings would be one of those tablets with hieroglyphics as in Memorial (see the January archive).

Here's a grainy photo of that sacrificial painting. I did it as part of a Family Album series in 1999. My wife thinks I look like a demon child in the painting. Certainly the face is not that of an ordinary child. The series was shown at the late Flatiron Gallery in North Adams.

On Wednesday I was ready to paint over the sledders But I kept staring at the painting and my mother's face, the face of a woman I loved a great deal and who loved me. What I was about to do began to seem like matricide. So I decided to take the painting off the stretcher and roll it up and store it between the joists.

Then I stapled fresh canvas over the stretcher. That's a hard job on that scale. Next I painted on a thick coat of heavy white Utrecht gesso and let that dry overnight. By now it's Friday. Two coats of Daniel Smith gold gesso went on that morning. I like that gold so much I sometimes hate to paint over it. Earlier in the week, I'd taken photos of the reflection that the faucet in the downstairs bathroom makes on the wall - dramatic angel wings. I print those out. They wings are on the right. Look hard. They're pretty faint but beautiful. I think of this as the Angel of the Sink.

I'm all set to start painting. I make a couple sketches. But I don't do anything on the canvas. Then I go to lunch with the guys. At 2 I go down to the studio again to start. I listen to the last tape of Swann's Way a second time. I thought Proust was a absurdly precious writer when I started the book. But by the time Swann fell in love Proust had me hooked. After listening to the tape and starring at the canvas I felt sleepy so I took a nap.

Friday night we got four inches of snow. So Saturday for the first time this winter I got the snow blower out. After that I went down to the studio to start to paint. But instead I took a photo of the empty canvas to run with this blog.

Then I took photos of the clouds through the kitchen window for my Inside Out series. Then I put them in the computer and edited them. Then I sat down at the computer and did this blog entry. Then at 6 we went to a benefit for Annie, a friend of Shannon's who had a bad bike crash this summer and can't walk. Shannon's husband Paul helped fix Annie's house up to adjust to her new life. Annie is strong willed and this isn't going to keep her down. Hundreds of people showed up and Annie greeted everyone. Her kids, her large family, friends, admirers crowded the hall. It was a great party.

When we got home we popped The Beat My Heart Skipped into the DVD player and watched that. I picked up some of the French words. Meanwhile, that canvas is still blank. Today's a fresh start. Lots of time before the Super Bowl.


February 2, 2007

Last night after watching the opening of Jimmy Kimmel at midnight I shut off all the downstairs lights to savor the way the moon was lighting up the rooms.

Then, never quite smart enough to go to bed, I grabbed the camera and shot pictures of the moon through the clearstory windows. Then I shot the illuminated lamp post next door at Woody and Rose's.

This is one of the latter. It was taken through one of the tall, narrow windows on that side of the house, a Thermopane window that is starting to mist over between the layers of glass.

This window has a little history. Back in 1970 when Tom Renton's crew finished framing the addition and covering it with plywood it was my turn to spring into action. To save money, I was shingling the exterior walls. The three narrow windows, which were expensive because they were custom made, had just been delivered and were strapped to the inner side of the plywood sheathing ready to be installed. The shingling was going pretty well, considering it was winter and that I had never put up a shingle before. I was pretty proud of the progress I was making.

I shouldn't have gotten cocky. As I started working next to the opening for the window in this shot, I drove nails right into the 10-foot tall piece of glass inside. I had forgotten that it was there. They had to order a replacement.

"How much did that cost me?" I asked Tom.

"You don't want to know," he said.



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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