“The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”
– Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
“Why the dramatic change in your work after 2014?”
“Why is your work so sparse from 2012 – 2014?”
My tendency is to avoid writing about personal issues but there is a compelling reason to do so now because the questions noted above keep coming up. These are valid questions and I must now address them. In in the past I’ve tried to answer without recourse to the personal, but it’s not possible without obfuscation. This is the posting I’ve avoided – now I’ve got to come clean.
My work changed because of a severe flare up of Ankylosing Spondylitis – a systemic arthritic condition – starting around the year 2012. It is true that I’d already grown dissatisfied with the large-scale multi-figural compositions I had been doing to date and gave this as my answer to the questions above. But illness compelled me to revisit my art making practice. For the first time I had to consider physical limitations. Walking and standing had become difficult. I had only partial use of my arms and hands. Exhaustion, pain and digestive problems were constant. My own illness and frailty shocked me. In 2012 and 2013 I completed only one piece each year, and in 2014, nothing. I soon became aware of one important reality: A chronic and debilitating illness pushes you to reset your priorities.
These are the only two works made from 2012 – 2014.
In 2010 my wife and I had already started to shift our priorities. When we moved to Lexington, Kentucky we bought a farm intending to develop a sustainable lifestyle by raising livestock and growing our own food. For me this meant demanding physical work while fighting arthritis. Sustainable living seemed a noble goal, but soon seemed self-indulgent. I understood my real goal should always be my art practice: I needed a re-boot.
Here are some pictures from the farm from 2011
The new work began in December of 2014 as an immersion in life drawing, which had been my great passion as a student. I self-prescribed weekly drawing sessions. The typical life drawing session begins with quick gesture poses, followed by poses increasing in duration for up to 60 minutes. The weekly drawing sessions allowed me to rebuild strength and flexibility and regain the sharpness of eye and endurance necessary for figurative work. The quick drawings, intense observation and vigorous drawing necessary for these sessions also suited my new limitations. Meticulous painting or drawing for hours at the easel, sitting or standing, had become difficult to the point of being counterproductive. I had to work at a quick, almost feverish pace and in short bursts.
Here are some of the first completed gestural pieces after the worst of the flare was over.
As I continued working from life I discovered some important truths. Working from life and in the immediacy of the sitter’s presence helps maintain a connection to real life at a time when digital life can be overwhelming. In this way, life drawing is about the artist maintaining human interaction. In presenting themselves to the world the sitter collaborates in this process as an active participant. This collaboration now occurs at a troubling and turbulent time. Fact, if not truth itself, is under siege. By working from life, the sitter and artist are the revealing truth of a specific time, place and act. This cannot be faked; the finished work is an unmediated artifact of the act. Rather than think of these as portraits of people, for me these are portraits of authentic moments.
The flares still come and go. Despite that, here is a link to Recent Work
Your comments and stories are welcome below!
For further reading
Here is an excellent article about Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Rheumatoid Arthritis (R.A.):
Impairment and disability: Renoir’s adaptive coping strategies against rheumatoid arthritis
More artists with R.A.:
Art History and Arthrits
Ankylosing Spondylitis advocate, former soccer player and model Charis has a comprehensive website with information, stories and essays: