On Intolerance And Authoritarianism: The Future Of The Democratic Party

Years ago, a Luxembourgese architect and urban design theorist named Leon Krier came on the scene. He was a firebrand. He felt that mainstream architects didn’t understand the nature of cities and were destroying cities all over the world through their naiveté. He actually told architects at his lectures that they would burn in hell for what they were doing to cities.

I saw Krier lecture again, perhaps fifteen years after his worst firebrand period. He had matured considerably. Instead of self-righteously telling other architects that he held the keys to the only truth, he shifted from his binary world view and asked only that he be allowed to build as he chose. If there was value in his point of view, his work would demonstrate that value, thereby convincing some architects of the worth of his ideas. Essentially, Krier moved from an authoritarian attitude toward truth, to an attitude that respected other architects’ freedom to make their own choices.

I was very similar to Krier when I was a young man. I was passionate about my version of the truth and assumed that the older architects, who didn’t approach architecture the way I did, were hacks. Over the years, I got to know a number of those older architects and found out how wrong I had been. Those architects were just as committed to great architecture as I was and the issues they emphasized were often issues I didn’t understand well.

I see a similar dynamic to my younger hot headedness among some younger voices within the Democratic Party. There is a faction within the party that is pushing for greater ideological purity and demanding that the party move farther left. This movement condemns and vilifies Democrats who are either more moderate than the ideological ideal or more willing to move incrementally toward the ideal than they are. The movement is also beginning to emphasize ideological litmus tests, single payer health care, for instance, to establish who should be considered an acceptable Democratic candidate.

I’m writing this essay because, in the opinion of this 63 year old progressive, forcing the Democratic Party farther left and exclusively left is a short sighted mistake that has the potential to be as destructive to the Democratic Party as the Tea Party movement has been to the Republican Party. The problem with the Tea Party movement is that the movement has made it harder for moderate Republicans to survive the primary process. That primary barrier has made it nearly impossible for moderate Republicans to remain a part of the Republican Party. As the two parties become progressively more pure, the ability to craft centrist legislation that both parties have some stake in evaporates. As legislation from the center evaporates, two possibilities surface. The first is governmental gridlock, which we have certainly seen a lot of. The second is partisan legislation that the other party has no stake in. The problem with partisan legislation is that it cannot last and cannot mature. What we have seen in recent years is a pendular dynamic in legislation. The party in power passes legislation that the opposing party tries to dismantle as soon as it achieves power, substituting its own partisan legislation that will in turn be dismantled. I’ve watched nearly sixty years of the progressive disintegration of American society that results from such ideological ping ponging.

Legislation within a functioning democracy is the antithesis of what I have just described. Democracy begins with the idea that solutions are to be arrived at through negotiated compromise involving all factions within the society. The legislation has to be centrist because of its dependence upon consensus. Also, because the majority of the society’s members have a stake in the legislative process, the legislation has the potential for longevity and refinement over time.

The authoritarian tendency of the voices pushing for greater ideological purity on both the left and the right strikes me as fundamentally anti democratic. The goal is domination of the society by a single ideology rather than commitment to a process that is inclusive, consensus driven, and grounded in compromise. I actually am very far to the left compared to the US population as a whole. However, I value democracy above ideology and will tolerate compromise to live in a civil manner within this nation that is so wildly diverse. My whole adult life I have witnessed movement on both the right and left in the US toward a more authoritarian model, a winner take all model that, in the final analysis, excludes both the center of American society and those at the opposite ideological pole from whoever is winning at the moment. The degree of animosity that is building between the two sides is, if anything, creating an ever growing potential for violence in America.

I have written before that we may have come to the point in American society where a reconciliation model may be the only thing that works, a model that says, we of the two opposite sides despise each other but choose to coexist despite our differences. Even that model presumes striving to coexist in a state of mutual tolerance. I don’t believe, at present, that the two political sides in the US even aspire to that degree of community.

While in high school, I met a young man named Lincoln Chaffee. Linc’s a smart, thoughtful guy. As an adult, he became a Republican senator from Rhode Island, and later, the state’s governor. He represented a long tradition of moderate and independent Republican thinking in Rhode Island. His father, also a Republican senator, was one of the first and most outspoken critics of the Viet Nam War. As the Republican Party became progressively more ideologically extreme and ideologically coherent, Linc no longer saw a place for himself in that party. He became an independent, then eventually a Democrat. If the Democrats who are so inclined, succeed in moving the Democratic further and more uniformly left, there will soon be no room for independent, moderate politicians like Lincoln Chaffee in either party. Politicians like Chaffee, who think for themselves, will be primaried out of Democratic races just as moderates have been primaried out of many Republican races by the far right. The Republican Party is impoverished by the disappearance of independent, thoughtful voices like Linc Chaffee’s. If Democrats give into analogous measures of ideological purity, there will be nowhere for people like Chaffee in American political discourse. Despite the fact that I am far to the left of Linc Chaffee, I want people like Linc Chaffee, like Michael Bloomberg, like John Kasich, to have a voice in American politics. These three politicians represent a thoughtful, responsible center, the place that American democratic (small d) process has the obligation to define.  As we exclude candidates like Chaffee, we strengthen the polarization that has created the gridlock and the disintegration of civility that are destroying American democracy. I am far more interested in reviving our democracy than in enforcing ideological purity within the Democratic Party. If we cannot discuss issues without marginalizing each other through catchall characterizations such as “Corporate Dem” or “Republican In Name Only”, all legislative efforts in our democracy will represent the short term ascendance of one exclusive ideology at the expense of its opposite, only to be reversed at the first opportunity by the other side. If we are to pass meaningful legislation that is to have the longevity that allows follow through and maturation, the legislation must emerge from a negotiated center that has too much shared value to be simply dumped with the next pendular swing of the dominant ideology.

In light of the present state of American politics and society, one older, deeply experienced politician’s slogan, “Stronger Together”, though not particularly catchy, actually strikes me as a brave and even radical alternative to the political winds that seem to be growing stronger and stronger despite how destructive they are to American society. I used to see older Democrats who were willing to compromise as sellouts. Now that I, myself, am older, I see the choices, especially of so-called “establishment Democrats”, as brave, responsible, and reflective of a great deal of experience at getting things done. I do see the value of young peoples’ impatience as a provocative conscience of sorts, and as an occasional prod to the codgers’ ability to get lost in process. However, I would suggest to young people that are pushing for ideological purity, that some of the experienced folks who are challenging that idea are challenging it based not on spinelessness, but actually on hard earned experience, experience earned by witnessing the consequences of their own ideological excess earlier in their lives.

When I was the Director of Academic Affairs at Oregon School of Design, I was the classic angry young man. I was a man on a mission to save architecture from the corruption of incompetent older architects. A famous, older architect, who shared my values, pulled me aside one day and said, “Don’t try to do too much, too fast”. I thought he was nuts. Who had the time to waste? However, having watched the entire arc of Oregon School of Design’s history and eventual demise, I came to understand the wisdom of that advice. He was actually saying more than I heard. He was saying, “listen to others, treat other points of view with respect, have some skepticism about your own convictions, take your time.” Of course I couldn’t follow that advice at the time. I was too sure of myself. But had I been able to follow that advice, fewer bridges would have been burned, broader community resources and voices would have been integrated into the program, program growth would have been less rushed, and, as a result, the program might have survived and transcended my immediate, youthful, ideological fetishes. One of the most important things I have learned over the years is that older people and more moderate voices are not necessarily stupid. They may simply be experienced and experience has value.

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Recent Drawing


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Recent Painting


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Separating The Wheat From The Chaff

One of the greatest challenges for early makers is letting go of successes that happen early in a piece. I vividly remember when that was difficult for me. I felt strongly that I didn’t know what I was doing. When anything ever did work, I felt it was a miracle or an accident that would never happen again. I learned very quickly that once I had changed something, it was impossible to remake the earlier version. The trap I fell into was trying to hold on to my successes while continuing to change the parts of the piece that didn’t work. The typical outcome was that I would get a piece to about a 60% success level, at which point I would freeze up because I couldn’t keep working the piece without wrecking the parts I liked.

The biggest problem was that I didn’t understand the nature of expression yet. I saw expression as something fragile, something that would disappear if I didn’t keep an eye out for it and protect it when it happened. Now, I feel exactly the opposite, that one’s core sensibility isn’t fragile at all. In fact, the more I shake up my work by repeatedly demolishing and rebuilding it, the more clearly and profoundly what is truly mine manifests itself. I’ve brought up in previous entries how much I value the metaphor of a wet dog shaking itself dry. The dog shakes so violently that all that can possibly remain is dog. A similar metaphor is the process of separating wheat from chaff, subjecting harvested wheat to such violence that all that is fragile is broken away, leaving only the seed, the part of the plant that carries the highest concentration of nutrients.

How this looks when I am painting is that, early in the process, there are often some passages in the painting that I really like. I could try to hold on to those passages while working the rest of the painting to get the less successful parts to work as well as the more successful parts. The problem is, that never works. One can’t both explore with a high level of risk and selectively protect at the same time. The two are actually mutually exclusive attitudes. Whenever a painter tries to do both simultaneously, the painting develops both a stiffness, especially in the strokes that are getting too close to the favorite parts, and a discontinuity because some parts are brave, risky, and spontaneous, while other parts reveal an attitude of holding back for fear of what might be ruined.

So back to my typical sequence. I develop a painting that is starting to work. Then as I continue to work the painting in risky ways on subsequent days, the original specific potential that I saw in the painting invariably gets trashed. The ruination of early potential happens partly because each day I work a painting, I need to have complete freedom to follow the expressive impulses that I have on that specific day. I can’t pretend to be in the same frame of mind I was in the day before. My expressive impulses simply exist and they are always changing. I suppose I could start a new painting at each sitting, but I am far more interested in a kind of maturation that only happens in paintings that have been returned to again and again. So, some good things happen, I ruin them, some new things happen, I ruin those, too. I keep rolling the dice again and again until the painting gets to a place where it has the richer voice that comes from repeated wrestling with the same surface. I think every painter eventually caves and stops this iterative process, but the longer one can keep the doors open on a painting, the greater the potential for depth. But not only depth. What I’m really most interested in, is finding something that is fundamentally expressive of my sensibility, rather than attaching to handsome early accidents. Like the wet dog, I want to shake the process so hard that my sensibility is the only thing left.

A bit more on the metaphor of throwing dice. If the goal is throwing double sixes, one can’t throw a two and a six, keep the six and continue throwing the second die until it lands on six, then claiming to have thrown double sixes. All you can do is throw the dice again and again until both sixes happen on the same throw. It doesn’t happen often. For it to happen regularly, one has to throw the dice an awful lot.

There is no sense in which this attitude toward painting is particularly rare or uniquely my own. I have found it in every painting I have ever loved. I think all the art that has truly inspired me over the years has been created in the way I have been describing. Quotes of Picasso’s refer explicitly to this process. Passages in James Lord’s book, A Giacometti Portrait, describe the same attitude in Giacometti’s work. Jim Dine and Frank Auerbach have both spoken in interviews of how central destruction and remaking is to their work. This idea appears again and again in both the writing and the work of many artists. It is, however, a difficult concept early in one’s work.

For less experienced makers, just remember that painting is not a linear process, paintings don’t get good, then get better and better, in a state of constant ascent. The work of my favorite painters is more like a sine wave, constantly up and down, as the artist’s impulses shift at each sitting and collide with the previous day’s work. It is as important to the quality of the work to allow destruction as it is to make constructive choices. I continue to strive to get better and better at ruining my work, simply because destruction, perhaps counterintuitively, is a crucial part of the work’s maturation process. I certainly understand the impulse to try to protect early successes but too often it degenerates simply into selling oneself cheap, accepting far less than one’s full capability.

I suggested early in this essay that my early process led to pieces that achieved perhaps a 60% success level, i.e. 60% of the painting was exciting to me. The more destructive process I am advocating is less efficient. I lose way more strong moments. My paintings take way longer. However, through this process that allows, even cultivates, destruction, I sometimes get paintings up into the 80s and 90s. Not a bad trade. I’d rather get one painting to 90% than have hundreds at 60.

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Recently, I have been playing a lot of archtop guitar, especially exploring single line melodies. Because I have been making physical modifications to the guitars I’ve been playing, I have been listening particularly carefully while playing. Also, the specific instruments I have been using are exceptional. The beauty of their tone has made it even more pleasurable to listen intensely to what I’m playing. What I have noticed is that through this careful listening, I make an especially strong identification between the mechanical action of my hands and the notes, melodies, and timbres that my hands are creating. That may seem an obvious thing for a musician to do, but musicians, especially inexperienced musicians, don’t necessarily listen the way I have been lately. I certainly didn’t listen that way early in my musical career. Musicians can just be thinking of patterns. They can be playing licks somewhat absently. They can be thinking about the idea of what they are playing, the name of the note or chord, or just that this note is the next one in the scale, or the right one for this place in the song. Worst of all, they can be passing judgement on their playing instead of taking in their playing.

As I’ve been experiencing this deeper form of listening, I’ve realized that had I always listened this intently while playing, that is, from the time I first began playing guitar, my ear and my hands would have grown much more quickly. The essential thing about this kind of listening is that it maximizes the integration of one’s hands and ear. That integration is what matters above all in music.

Again, isn’t this obvious? Not really. For years I played by rote, as do many musicians, especially early on. It is possible as a learning musician to play through the head rather than through the ear. More than once I have heard an inexperienced bass player play through an entire song a half step off from the other people in the band, because the bass player was thinking in terms of fingering pattern and not actually listening to the notes he was playing. If you aren’t a musician, playing a half step off from the rest of the band is about as out of key as one can get, and yet these amateur bass players didn’t notice.

Bear with me. I’ll get to drawing, but first another example from another art. This last weekend, I went to a dance performance. All the performers were good and quite experienced, but one dancer really stood out to me. While the other dancers seemed to just be going though the movements, albeit skillfully, he seemed to be experiencing each moment of the movement in full detail, as if he were discovering the beauty of it for the first time. I mentioned this to my wife, who was a professional dancer for twenty five years. She said that some dancers embody the movement while others just do the steps. Just doing the steps is moving by head, following directions. The dancer I was watching was not in his head at all. He was completely in his body. There was no conceptual distance between himself and the movement. He was the movement.

So what does this have to do with drawing and painting? Just as with music, early drawers and painters often stand far outside their work while they are doing it. Two examples. New drawers are often criticizing what they are making while they are making it. They are thinking of what they wish they could make rather than paying attention to what they are actually making. Early painters, as another example, often use color purely symbolically. They are not witnessing or responding to the colors they are actually making. For instance, a painter will notice that the model’s skin is flesh colored. The painter then mixes a whole bunch of paint from what they think are components of flesh tone and applies that mix wherever they see skin. Often the paint mix is miles from flesh tone but the painter just keeps using more and more of it wherever there is skin, just like the bass player who is off a half step. The new painter doesn’t study the color she did mix. She just sees it as a poor choice that reflects her inexperience.

The real question for a painter (drawer) is not what the painter hopes to do. Where there is the greatest potential for learning is in experiencing what the painter is actually doing. Imagine if the beginning painter were really watching the paint as it was being mixed. Regardless of whether the mix was what the artist intended, there would be so much to notice and experience in what is actually happening with the paint. If a painter is lost in paying attention to the paint, then every mix is a learning experience. Over time, mixing and seeing get integrated just as hearing and playing do for a musician who intensely listens.

New drawers often tell me that they don’t know what kind of marks to use to get such and such an effect. In the mean time, they are holding back, working tentatively in real time. Because they are focusing on what they wish would happen, they entirely miss the opportunity to make what they can make fully right now, and having held back, they can’t experience the successes of the present stage of their work. In recent years, I have been trying to explain to students that the ways drawings turn out early on are not mistakes at all, but rather are accurate reflections of how beginners see as makers. If the student can experience, study, and commit to the nuances of how they are making right now, they place themselves exactly where the most motivated and exploratory changes occur.

A few years ago, I had an intermediate student who felt her drawn faces were turning out as “cheesy” (her word). She wanted them to turn out differently. She wanted to know how to fix them. I eventually suggested that there was nothing to fix, that what she saw as “cheesy” was actually a stage in her seeing and making that she should indulge. I suspect one of the things that was happening was that she was beginning to emphasize certain characteristics that struck her as essential. Often, the early stages of emphasis are clumsy looking but very important. To emphasize something, one has to really understand it. Having mastered that understanding, one can later begin to finesse things so that the emphasis is more subtle and less obvious, if that’s what the artist desires. This year, I saw a show of new work by this same artist and it was truly stunning. The “cheesiness” had resolved itself. It wasn’t gone. It had simply evolved into a more subtle and complex balance of nuanced insights.

The essence of what I am talking about is that there is the greatest potential for learning exactly where the artist is in real time, because that is the place that the artist best understands at the moment. That’s the place that truly expresses the artist’s present experience base as a maker. That’s the place where the artist can make incremental adjustments and motivated experiments that can be witnessed intensely. The artist’s long term ideals are called long term for a reason. Those ideals will necessarily be inaccessible for many years. The most direct path to that future is created by committing fully to what can be made today. Any sense in which a choice works can be appreciated and allowed to register. Choices that seem to make things worse can just as powerfully be witnessed as a sources of experience, in the same way that paint mixes that didn’t come out as expected can be. Judging the mix accomplishes nothing. Experiencing the mix…now that’s another matter. Every mix contributes to one’s base of experience, if witnessed. 

When I was in my forties, I took lots of yoga classes. The teacher recommended that we not try to do the asanas as she was doing them. She encouraged us to explore simpler, less advanced versions where we could feel change happening in our own bodies and actively explore our own experience. At the time, I couldn’t get there. I just insisted on trying to do what the teacher was doing. Many years later, I returned to yoga with the ambition simply to slow the natural freezing up that comes with aging. With my ambition scaled way down, I did find the place where I could experience change in my body. It was a very primitive place compared to what the teacher was doing, but it was a very real and exciting place once I allowed myself to value it.

So, for beginning students, actually for anyone who is still learning, I’m suggesting that they not see where they are as a place of failure that should be fixed, but rather as the very place that matters most, the place, if intensely experienced, that is the locus of greatest growth. That choice of paying intense attention to, actually savoring, where you are at the moment needn’t be the purview of the experienced. It is just as accessible to the beginner, and is, in fact, where the most happens. The way I am listening to my playing these days is a way that I could have listened from day one. I had some close musician friends who did just that. I assumed they had better ears than I did. In fact, they were just paying more attention to their ears. My mistakes in the beginning were twofold. First, I thought I should be thinking about things rather than experiencing them, and second, I thought that what I could do was not good enough to be worthy of attention. By treating what I was doing early on as something of little value, I missed much of the extraordinary value it actually had.

I’d like to close with two examples. When I watch my wife, Joan, paint, she seems to really pay attention to every moment. She watches what happens when she mixes two or three colors together. She notices what she gets. She finds places to put the mix on the painting and watches the behavior of the brush and how the paint flows onto the canvas. She experiences the different ways that color reads as it lands next to different colors. She doesn’t try to intellectually categorize what is happening. She is far too busy with her senses for that. The result of this attention is, number one, that she absolutely loves painting and, number two, that she has a huge experience base regarding mixing, color relationships, brush behavior, etc. because she has been paying attention to what has been happening all along. The second example is from my own experience as a drawer. I have no idea why I have always drawn this way. Maybe it’s because my first drawing teacher said that he would rather see a pile of motivated failures by our tables than a few conservative successes. Maybe it’s because I didn’t expect much of my drawing in the beginning. Whatever the reason, from day one, once I decided to learn to draw as an adult, I have always drawn full out. Somehow I got hooked on finding where I am, rather than worrying about success or failure. As with my wife’s experience with paint, every drawing is a learning experience, whether it turns out well or crashes in flames. I know in my bones that my greatest successes result from discoveries forged in the previous failures, so while I am working, I don’t think about success or failure. I’m simply too busy making to waste time judging things. It’s not that my early drawings were great. But they were frank. They were what they were, or rather they reveal where I was at the time they were made. And just as with Joan and painting, I have always loved drawing. I love the struggles. I love the discoveries. I love how unpredictable it is. For me, drawing is like food. I can’t live without it and it gives me the opportunity to indulge in whatever I most enjoy at the moment. Also, as with food, I enjoy what I enjoy. It doesn’t matter whether others like what I like, and I can’t be talked into liking what I don’t like. Drawing is a sensory, exploratory experience that is all consuming.

I suspect that many beginning drawers feel that the attitude I assumed early in my drawing must be earned, that otherwise it would be arrogant. I disagree. The attitude I am encouraging is to simply treat what you are doing and your potential with the respect. If you assume that what you do doesn’t merit respect, then you get trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you treat your own work as being unworthy of your intense attention, you will limit the ability to witness your own experience and, in turn, limit the growth that will allow you to express your potential.

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The Value And Necessity Of Poor Choices

I have returned to painting recently after years of concentrating mainly on my guitar making and drawing. As I walked through the studio today, I noticed a painting I had been working on yesterday that, today, looks dreadful to me. Yesterday, I had been in the early stages of the painting and didn’t have any idea of what I wanted to do. My motivations seemed fragile, random, or nonexistent. I’ve never let that stop me in the past, so I just started throwing all kinds of random actions at the painting. When I saw the painting today, I found that there were many things I wanted to do to it, many qualities and characteristics that I wanted to struggle with, react to, embellish, and/or change. The motivation that I found today would not have been accessible had I not made the crappy and often random choices that I made yesterday. That dynamic relationship between less than stellar choices and motivation is what I want to discuss.

One statement that I often make to students about my own process is that it takes me a while to notice what I notice. I have to make, to learn more about making. In the early stages, my understanding and motivation aren’t clear. If I have to wait for clarity, the process doesn’t begin. I certainly have found over the years that drawing and painting are physical disciplines. By that, I mean that I can’t solve problems in my work by thinking about them. The only process that really contributes to my understanding problems in drawing and painting is to engage them physically, to engage them through making. The kind of painting and drawing I love just can’t be done in one’s head.

So, there is an inherent dilemma for those makers among us who struggle with perfectionism. What we would prefer to be a one step process of figuring out what we want to do, then doing it, is inescapably, and in fact, a multi-stage process that begins with not knowing. The absolutely beautiful core of this process is that its soil is failure. If I learn what I want to do by trying things, then the process simply has to begin with crappy choices. Mark Bornowski, an excellent drawer, once told my students a story of his having been in artillery in the military as a young man. He described how, before the advent of smart bombs, people manning canons or mortars could only aim the artillery precisely by first firing essentially a throw away shot. They would take their best, but unavoidably not all that great, first shot, notice where that lands, then make adjustments so that the second shot lands further left or right, deeper or shallower. Mark shared that story because of its analogies to drawing and painting. One’s early choices can’t be very well informed, so it makes little sense to expect much of those choices. What’s exciting about those early choices is that their very “wrongness” gives us huge amounts of information. In terms of observing an external subject like a model, the early clumsy version can be compared to the subject observed and one begins, right away, to notice more than one could without the not so hot early version as a referent. With an abstract painting, like the one I was working on, its physical characteristics elicit all kinds of reactions and provide the soil of physical interaction from which deeper motivation emerges over time.

My point is simply that the clumsy early stages are the essential foundation of later discoveries. The clumsy early stages are not to be avoided or condemned, but rather, should be exuberantly embraced because they contribute so much. In fact, without them, nothing can happen and, the fact is, they are unavoidable. I saw a film last year in which the musician, Nick Cave, suggests that good ideas start out as bad ideas, that good ideas are essentially bad ideas that have been tested, challenged, enhanced to the point that they mature into much more satisfying possibilities. The point is that without the bad ideas, the good ideas can’t emerge.

This issue is one of the reasons that the early stages of a painting or drawing are so fun for me. I know that their specific content doesn’t really matter. I just need some making to react to. It doesn’t need to be good making and, in fact, can’t be good making at the start of the process. There is no way to catastrophically fail in the early stages. Failing is, in fact, one’s job. It informs and makes possible all the subsequent stages of making. What is so fun in the beginning is indulging my skill at failing. I’m great at it! What is needed at the beginning is not something over my head or beyond my reach. What I need to make in the beginning is something I am always capable of, mediocrity, garbage, “whatever” kind of stuff. Not only that. That very stuff is an important and necessary foundation of the work’s later stages.

To a wider frame. As a recovering perfectionist, I am often embarrassed by making mistakes in front of other people. I’d like to internalize that human interaction follows the same processes I know so well in art, that clarity emerges through just starting, engaging, in whatever messy way one can begin. I hope to, over time, begin seeing behavior I deem embarrassing in others as simply a brave beginning rather than something to be avoided, to see others’ failures as encouragement for me to take similar risks, that mastery comes from what one learns by being willing to be not so good at things.

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The Bridge, Expression And Structure

Think of a bridge across a river. To build such a bridge, one has to begin building toward the center of the river from the land on each side. For the longest time, until the two sides meet, the bridge is a complete failure as a bridge. Before the two sides of the bridge meet, if you drive from either side toward the other side, you ultimately end up in the drink. However, if you keep working on each side, the bridge ultimately becomes a continuous whole rather than two incomplete beginnings.

I think of the relationship between structure and expression in drawings as a similar condition. Early in one’s work, the relationship between the two is unclear, the idea of making a drawing that equally articulates both seems impossible. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, in my first year of serious fine art drawing, I saw an original Cezanne drawing of a young boy’s head at the house of a Philadelphia art collector. The drawing beautifully captured and described truths about the structure of the subject. As I began to look at the individual marks that composed this drawing, I was stunned by how freely made and expressive the marks were. They had life and energy purely as marks and were in no way limited in their expressive energy by the structure they conveyed. I knew from that moment that that was the kind of drawing I wanted to be able to make, but how on earth to get there?

What has helped me has been to view the two characteristics, structure and expression as two  conditions of study, equally important, that, over time, meet and coexist, neither compromising the intensity of the other. I approach each as the starting point of a bridge. In some drawings, I concentrate on understanding and characterizing aspects of the structure of what I am observing. The drawings that are more oriented toward structure tend to be tighter drawings and my effort focuses on creating legibility. The expressive drawings, on the other hand, are understood to be, not a description, but rather, a reaction. The marks are more about my reactions to the subject than about the subject itself. They are about how I feel, the feelings and movements the subject evokes within me, how I like to make at the moment, the kind of strokes I would use if I had total freedom and didn’t need to control or limit the marks to make a legible description. I still make these marks as a reaction to an observed subject. That is what allows the expressive side of the bridge to build toward the side of structure. That is, I could make really expressive marks without looking at anything, but what interests me is finding or allowing those very same kinds of marks exactly while interacting with both internal and external subject matter.

If I allow myself to approach a subject from both sides, some drawings emphasizing structure and some drawings emphasizing expression, over time each side begins to corrupt the other. More structure surfaces in my expressive drawings. More expression surfaces in the drawings that are biased toward structure. It doesn’t work to try to force a compromise between the two. I need to give expression full primacy in some drawings and structure full primacy in others. Over time, and with lots of experience doing both, the two sides begin moving toward each other. If I’m exceptionally lucky, the sides meet, creating a continuous bridge between the two categories of impulses.

The fact is, the relationship between these two impulses is messy. They can compromise each other and rarely find equal balance. Just like human relationships, the relationship between these two kinds of impulses can be really complicated and often founders. When the relationship works though, when both coexist full on, influenced by but not compromised by the other, then drawing gets really exciting. My drawing teacher, Jerry Buchanan, saw drawing as a superimposition of many simultaneous realities, above all, the reality of the subject and the reality of the maker. I feel, as he did, that without both, a drawing loses the very essence of what makes drawings extraordinary.

Even after thirty-eight years of drawing, the balance I am describing is hard for me to find. Each drawing tends to move more toward one side or the other. I am always trying to reach the middle of the bridge, but more often than not end up closer to one bank than the other. Because my ways of working allow lots of reworking and changes in direction, an individual drawing might move back and forth, being overbalanced toward one side then the other, again and again, as I search for balance between the two impulse. It isn’t easy for me to create the balance I seek. The best I can do is try to give both bodies of impulse full reign, hoping that they end up coexisting rather than destroying each other. One of the great things about drawing is that one can shoot for an ideal time and time again, failing most of the time, and yet still achieve rare moments that at least point toward the possibility of the ideal.

My only closing thought is that if you also value the balance of both impulses in your work, you must let both mature simultaneously. I’ve known many artists who assume that one must master structure first, then expression. If one approaches making that way, an ever growing asymmetry between the impulses grows. The artist gets better and better at structure, while expression remains naive. Once one finally engages expression, it is so far behind structure in its maturity, that structure will suppress expression every time. Expression simply hasn’t the strength to demand equal influence. So I suggest emphasizing both equally from day one, not in every drawing, but rather drawing to drawing. Swing way out toward one, then way out toward the other and keep it up while they find the way to each other. Just as with a literal bridge, the work on each side remains incomplete for quite a while, but eventually the sides meet and create something integrated, flowing, and complete, far stronger than either side on its own.

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Phil Sylvester’s Interview On KBOO


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Being A Pragmatic Socialist Within American Democracy

I’m a socialist. However, I have a commitment even deeper than my commitment to socialism. I am committed above all to democracy. Democracy, for all its inefficiency and mediocrity, is the best system we have for maintaining community within a nation as wildly diverse as the US. And last but not least, I love America, I love being American, I love living in the US.

Holding all three of these allegiances simultaneously leads me to some choices within American society that are complex and not necessarily what one would expect. Though I feel the US would be a much better place for the majority of its citizens if its political policies were more socialist, my commitment to democracy as a political system and my desire to stay in America mean I cannot impose my ideology on the millions of Americans who don’t agree with me. For us to hold together as a democratic union, our only option is to come to a place of mutual compromise through the democratic process. Deep down, I feel the people on the far right are nuts and totally wrong, but they are a part of our democracy and have as much a right to influence our laws as I do. I hope they feel I also have a right to influence our shared society. The point is, democracy trumps ideology if one is committed to democracy. Whatever my ideology, the domination of American politics by my ideology cannot be my goal in a democracy. Democracy is the antithesis of a winner take all political structure.

Where this gets really complicated is in this season’s presidential race. I love Bernie Sanders. His ideology is probably closest to mine of all the candidates running. However, democracy works from the center and cannot function with ideological purity. If democracy is my first concern, rather than the authoritarian enforcement of my own ideology, then what I am really looking for is the candidate who can move the center more toward what I consider the best path. At this point, I believe Hillary Clinton would be better able to move the US toward the left than Bernie because she will be pushing from the center instead of standing for, as Bernie says, a revolution. Clinton, as everyone has pointed out, is a pragmatist, sometimes such a pragmatist that it makes me very uncomfortable, while Bernie is more of an ideologue. My best guess is that at this point, because of her great skill and experience as a left leaning pragmatist, she will be able to accomplish more, in practical terms, than Bernie. I may be dead wrong. Maybe Bernie can create such enthusiasm that he can create a major shift in American thinking. That would be great. But I will not support Bernie simply because his ideology is more in line with mine. This is not about what I would do as an authoritarian. It is about how to strategically strengthen the clout of my values within this democracy.

The trend on both the right and the left to excoriate candidates for their ideological impurity places ideology above democracy. If we choose to continue to live together in a non-authoritarian state, we need to radically tamp down the ideological self-righteousness on all sides. The self-righteousness stems from a winner take all, anti-democratic attitude and will tear, is tearing, this nation to pieces. If authoritarianism is what you prefer, then admit it. Say, “we want our side to take over and subjugate your side because we are right, you are wrong, and democracy is not important”. If, on the other hand, democracy matters to us, then we need to challenge our ubiquitous harsh and judgmental political behavior. The problems between the right and the left are obvious, but what is becoming just as bad is the name calling within the left and the right. It is all authoritarian in nature. I might be right or I might be wrong in my political judgements, but don’t call me the anti-Christ. I’m a participant in our democracy, as are you. I am not the enemy. Civility is the currency of democracy. Without it we strengthen the rigid anti-democratic politics that have brought American democracy to a standstill.

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Drawing Blind

IMG_0814In February, a show of my latest work will go up at Gallery 114 in Portland. Much has been made of the fact that these drawings are drawn to a great extent “blind”, that is, without looking at the paper. This is the story of how the blind work emerged.

About twelve to fifteen years into my work, I had a massive artist’s block. I had been doing figurative work from observation and the work was getting more and more detailed and explicit. Also, I was beginning to do multiple figure work. After a six month trip to Europe and interruption of my work, I found I couldn’t face continuing in this direction that had been evolving for so many years. Essentially, the burden of solving so many drawing details became overwhelming. I had the skills to solve the drawing structure, but it involved hours and hours of exercising established abilities and involved little new discovery. I wanted to get back to the feeling of my early drawing where new worlds of seeing were happening every day. However, I had no idea how to do that.

The challenge, as I have written before, was to let go of how I habitually approached things. One day, after perhaps eight or nine months of block, I had a break through session. I stopped looking to resolve the structure and shifted instead toward working very physically, very quickly,  and in a very large format, focusing on constantly exploring the frontiers of my seeing, larger scale relationships, more spatial and surface movement, geometric relationships. The key was to not pay much attention to the drawing itself, allowing the drawing to go out of focus, out of registration. That way, each new exploratory mark could just land where it landed, rather than being qualified so that it would line up with and not contradict earlier decisions. I could get to that place by working large and fast, but I had to work very hard to let go of registration in smaller formats and at slower speeds.

It was at this time that I started working with two ball point pens at once, held in one hand. I kept the pens on the paper at all times, moving continuously. That way no discreet edges could be created. The drawing was always out of focus. Not lifting the pens off the paper meant I was constantly leaving nonsense drag marks across the drawing as my eyes moved from place to place. The pen marks were so fine that no single mark could ruin the drawing. It was only how the marks piled up by the hundreds that had any impact on a reading.

Various ways of experimenting helped me develop, over time, the quality that I call independence, that is, where each mark has the freedom to land where it is seen regardless of how much it may contradict earlier marks. Cezanne is a master of independence. That is why his works often has a quality of being somewhat out of focus. Independence required that I not pay attention to what was already on the page. The easiest way to do that was to not look at the page much and to avoid looking at the moment the mark lands. As I became more and more comfortable marking without looking, I did more and more experiments suspending looking at the page at all while working. I loved working this way because it freed me to concentrate exclusively on observing and the expressive impulse of the mark, my two favorite aspects of drawing.

Well, one day, one of my blind figure studies actually ended up reading in a way that was very interesting to me and unlike any of my previous drawing. A huge amount of structure, especially spatial structure and surface, was implied, without anything being discreet or explicit. Everything was out of focus, but still, the drawing held a huge amount of implied content. That drawing haunted me. I wanted to make more like it but, for the longest time, couldn’t.

The next step happened while working on a portrait of David Biespiel, the poet. I worked from David for two months, going back and forth between blind studies and more explicit drawings. Eventually, I developed enough of a familiarity with his face that I could do blind studies that actually had implied structure rather than just being a pile of out of focus fuzz. I had tripped over the same territory as that figure drawing that I couldn’t repeat. The key was becoming extremely familiar with my subject.

About five or six years ago, I started drawing my friend Gary each week. I’ve drawn Gary now at least 400 hours. My studies go back and forth between fully blind and explicit, also hitting all the territory in between. Essentially, I am moving back and forth across a line of ambiguous implication, hoping to occasionally get close to the knife edge of ambiguous structure that so interests me. I would say that it takes me maybe one hundred drawings, each going too far toward either control or empty chaos before I find a drawing with some of the qualities I value. The Gallery 114 show gives me a chance to share some of this work.

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