In our studio on West 7th Street, we have 7,268 frame samples. It is the most in the southwest U.S., and the 3rd largest selection in the country. Amazing! I know…right? And, we accomplish this in a rather modestly-sized showroom. From floor to ceiling. Designs and finishes from many places on Earth: heavy, interesting byzantine designs from eastern Europe; middle-eastern designs from morocco; tribal patterns from Africa; historic Italian, French, German, English, and Spanish profiles worthy of kingly portraits and vast landscapes. And then…the American frames: White, Whistler, and others; Nouveau, Deco, Craftsman, Mid-century, Pop, Modern, tech. We have glitter frames and mirrored frames. Chunky rock frames and barnwood frames. It truly represents “jewelry for the walls”. Anyway, one day a few months ago, a regular client came in, asking if we could help unload a large painting from her suburban. It was unframed, old, a bit tattered, and almost too large for her vehicle. We managed to squeeze it out. Once inside and having set the painting on a large easel, the client and I stared at it in silence. It was a valuable painting, painted in the early 20th century by a noted artist…long dead. After that long silence, I simply said, “Umm, tell me about this painting.” She did. It had hung in her mother-in-laws home for 65 years; on the same wall; never having been moved. Her mother-in-law had recently passed away, and my clients husband was an only child. He cherished this painting. And, while it was lovely, my client did not care for it. Her husband had incredibly fond memories of many happy times spent under its gaze in the room where it hung. Since my client and her husband were already older and had established themselves very comfortably in their own homes during their lives, and raised children, they did not want, or need any of the remarkably grand possessions of the deceased mother. So, the husband arranged for an estate firm to take control and liquidate all of the personal property of his mother. Of course, he was eager to save the huge number of family photos that his parents had collected over the years. One day, he arrived home from work, having stopped by his mothers house to meet with the estate firm. He was very excited; almost giddy. He was never a giddy man. But, he was today. And why was he so jovial? She very quickly discovered why. He presented her with “the” painting. Over the many years of their marriage, in and out of his mothers house for holidays, special occasions, dinners, parties, etc., he had often mentioned to his wife how much he loved that painting….year after year, on the way home, the same comment: “I remember so many great times sitting in that room under that painting.” And, of course, she agreed, strongly. He didn’t exclaim over things much; it wasn’t his personality. So, of course if she, over the years, had gone a bit overboard herself about the extraordinary qualities of “the” painting, she could be excused for just wanting to support the only thing in her memory that ever seemed to elicit this lovely response from her husband. So, she encouraged his adoration. So what. Well, now here it was. A painting that practically everyone she knew would love to have. And now, after having cooed with him over it for 45 years of marriage, she couldn’t really say that she didn’t want it. She was stuck. Oh, AND, he insisted that it be hung in their foyer to be seen every time someone entered the house, or went up or down the stairs. A place of honor. So, after having explained all of this to me, she said, “you have got to make me love this painting!” She then left. It took me three weeks. Making selections. Then, changing my mind. Finally, I made a choice. The frame I chose was really over the top. Huge. Not traditional. Not contemporary. But a very visually demanding frame. It had a pattern, and undulation in it that somehow complemented the movement in the painted surface. Without ruining any inherent qualities of this very fine painting, this frame gave it a sort of modern appeal. I called her to come look at it and approve before we made the frame. She said she trusted me, and to do it. We did it. I called her when it was finished. She made an appointment to arrive the next day. It was now so large that we had to deliver and install it. But, she wanted to see it first. The afternoon she arrived was a bright and clear day. I opened all of the blinds in the front showroom, knowing that her foyer was light-filled. She walked in the door, stopped suddenly. Eyes wide-opened, she stared for a long time. Then she actually began to tear a bit, and I thought she might cry. She wiped the corner of her eyes and exclaimed, “Oh my god….I Love it!” She beamed with excitement and apologized for her emotion. She and her husband had just had a huge quarrel the night before, had spoken little at breakfast because of the tension. But she knew now that when he came home from work, his favorite painting from childhood would be hanging exactly where he wanted it. She would meet him at the door with a glass of wine. They would ‘both’, ‘truthfully’ squeal with joy, and their terrible argument would be smothered by the presence of this object he loved so much. And, that she now, equally, loved too.
A 91 year old, childhood friend of my deceased father, recently gave me an old photo he had stumbled across. The photo is of my father as a 17 year old high school student. Not long after this photo was taken, my father would be in college, then later, off to serve in the Navy as a communication officer, ultimately serving under Admiral Nimitz in the pacific. In the photo, he looks young and lean. On his face, you can just make out the urgency of the times…..a stern, shadowed and serious look. And, while his personal life had not known great upheavals, his writings as a young man reveal his worry and concern about the events going on in the world. The photo shows a handsome, narrow face, whose cheeks are slightly high, washed by light. On either side of his mouth are characteristic sunken areas, cast in elongated shadows reaching to his chin. Full lips, not smiling nor frowning, yet somehow displaying a resolute seriousness. His eyes looking straight at the camera, slightly squinted; brows even; unwrinkled forehead……overall, an expression of a person comfortable with the moment. He is dressed uncharacteristically casual, in a dark cotton shirt, open at the collar. Shadows on his long neck and throat very prominent. His very carefully parted, thick sandy-colored hair, gleaming on one side from a source of light, perhaps a window or bulb, and in shadow on the other side. Definitely a simple, yet dramatic photo of a young man on the brink of his future in an era of global uncertainty and dire predictions for all. From the condition of the photo, its clear that it had, early on, been overly exposed to light, causing odd shadows and discolored edges, as if it had lain out partially covered for an extended period. The point of this is that this photo now, for me, represents an object of meditation, of sorts. I find myself completely enthralled in looking at it; imagining him in that time. It has faded and aged in ways that are so engaging, actually enhancing the experience of the photo, and giving it an almost painterly quality. The original image is actually improved by these stains; these areas of fading; these slight distortions. They add to the drama of the photo. They somehow increase the weight of the times in which it was taken. When I look at this photo…this piece of art….I find myself temporarily lapsed into its image…..its shadows….its texture…..its story. This photo made such an impact on me, I had it enlarged to a 16 x 20 size. I framed it, and hung it in a place where I will see it many times a day. Like all of my art, I now use it as a point of entry to quiet reflection. Every image has a story. Whether painted, sculpted, carved, inscribed, or photographed. Each image tells a story about the moment, the subject, the person creating it. Art has always been a source of quiet reflection. Museums are usually quiet. People walk slowly through their galleries. They talk in low tones. They sit or stand for periods of time staring at a single piece of art. People have long recognized the contemplative qualities of art. The ability to lose oneself in the image. The amount of time that can pass unnoticed because ones focus and attention is completely, totally absorbed by the image. This is meditation: the act of spending time in quiet reflection. I think that people who love art experience this quality. They may not label it as such. They may not be aware of their enjoyment as meditation, but it fits all of the definitions. Never before in the history of mankind, to our knowledge, have humans experienced such a busy and harried daily existence. Constant distractions from advertising, urban noises, societal pressures. Yet, all around us are the elements needed for deep focus; deep meditation. Quiet reflection. A print, a photo, an original work of art. Search family photos; art books; the internet. Find images that have an immediate impact on you. Don’t think. Just react. Which images please you? Which ones make you “feel” something good, peaceful, satisfied? Keep that image or images in your daily life. It can be a immediate refuge when needed. And, that is the purpose of meditation. That is the purpose of art……to be a refuge…..a place we can go at any moment. Many scientific studies are being done across the world on meditation. The studies focus on what happens to the brain during periods of deep, quiet, reflection. It has been conclusively determined that brains that are often engaged in such activities have more, and higher quality connections between its parts. Using sophisticated instruments, those brains show much more finely-tuned synapses, allowing more direct flow of energy. In other words: we are more finely tuned as biological machines when we find ways to meditate; to quiet the mind; to focus on a single thought. It refines and recalibrates the brain and body. Find your art to recalibrate your brain and body.
David Brooks, the noted Columnist for the New York Times, has authored a new book, “The Road to Character”. In it he writes about his thinking on the issue of how to create a valuable life. He discusses what he calls the two sets of virtues that we all have, “the resume virtues, and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the ones that bring us outward success; the eulogy virtues are the ones that bring us inner success. While most of us would probably “say” that eulogy virtues are more important, what we actually “do” is spend most of our lives focusing on the resume virtues. I highly recommend this book. I like to think that the art of ones life is finding the balance between the two virtues. As my Scottish grandfather used to say, “No one on their deathbed, while taking their last breath, ever says…”Gosh, I wish I’d worked more”…. Art is about “seeing” through the obvious….the usual…the expected.
The Old Testament prohibits the making of images of God. Early Christianity saw the whole world of the senses as a snare and a delusion, distracting the soul from the higher world of the Spirit. Plato saw art as an imitation of particular things that were themselves already imitations of some divine and unchanging order of archetypes, the idea of a tree, the idea of a table.
Why paint? Why write? Why compose music? Why make careful representations of things, when you can look at the real items for yourself? Perhaps to see them in a different form; to eliminate their “realness” and offer them as religious metaphors or symbols, as metaphors of human identity, as art objects to be studied, as metaphors of material transience.
A rose or a lily can be painted or written about because it can be made to signify the passion of religion, or the purity of the Virgins. In previous centuries, there was an idea that things in and on the earth were mystical signs put there by God to help us to see heavenly truths – a kind of hieroglyphic language.
Intensity of colour, meaning death and transience. Paintings depicting glass as something solid that could be at once seen and seen through; “bleak paleness” of age and death.
This doubleness of enticement and rejection is stranger in language than in painting. A delightful painting after Carlo Dolci, where the Virgin and Child play with flowers: a pink, thorned rose signifying the Passion and Christ’s future suffering, a stem of white lilies signifying female purity, red carnations symbolising blood – carnation means flesh-coloured, and is cognate with incarnate. A painting of a skull that juxtaposes the eyeless hollows and nasal cavity of the gleaming bony surface of the skull with other surfaces – pearly shell, gleaming metal, a rotund pot – and places silent instruments, a flute, a shawm, next to the broken teeth and the unhearing ears. Historically, many noted painters have painted images of transience that, at first, seem disturbing, until your attention is brought to the meticulous beauty of the despised stuff of the ended or rejected worldly life. All are “about” the painter’s excitement over, and his skill in rendering, the cabbageness of cabbages, the bloody lean and creamy fat of a hanging leg of beef, light on woven baskets and abundant spheres and globes of fruits.
In a famous painting by Francisco de Zurbaran, painted in 1630, “A cup of water and a rose”,the artist shows a white ceramic cup, almost full of still water, on a thick silver platter, with a fragile, slightly blown pink rose. The surface of the water is a miracle of rendering of transparency in solid pigment. The excitement of the painting is in the way the artist represents the complicated process of seeing itself, the way the brain reconstructs liquids and solids, roughs and smooths. And then the way the paint makes a new object, also solid, representing this seeing and understanding. This painting understands and reproduces vision. It is Zurbarán’s endlessly varied, endlessly repeated obsession with stuff, with cloth, with different folds of different weights of monks’ habits. Zurbarán is a visionary of the material.
In a painting by Velázquez, an angry cook, wielding a pestle, glares out at us with the rage of all women confined to kitchen tasks. Beside her, are four fish, some papery-skinned garlic roots and two gleaming eggs. There is great emotion exhibited in these simple, everyday objects. Frederick Elwell’s English interior full of harmonious objects and Peter Blake’s “found” collection of miniature bottles, both are examples of images depicting everyday things, some common, some exquisite. These are all, at some primary level, a contemplation of the work of eye and brain, first in really seeing something, in making vision – and then in reforming the vision in new and other material. Some art teachers urge their students to draw crumpled paper so as to see clearly, without preconceptions, and to record what we see. Crumples and folds – as in the shimmering 17th-century Dutch skirts of silvery satin, as in Zurbarán’s brown and creamy habits – are random abstractions that make us think about seeing, and about light. Because once your vision is transformed from merely seeing the object, to “seeing” the object fully, you new vision transforms your life; you are expanded. The painted metaphor becomes reality in the change that has occurred in you. For it is within our material bodies that we experience and record interactions with other material life; it is in seeing the detail of the objects that we realize that their true value to us is what we learn about impermanence….about transience….about what we actually miss seeing. Art can teach us that all of life is representational. It really stands for something else, something we usually don’t “see”. But, if we look hard enough, we can make ourselves aware of what lies behind the everyday objects in our lives. And then, no matter who we are, what we have, or what we have experienced, our lives are changed.
There is a famous Buddhist story about a man and his beloved cat. He places a bowl of food on the floor some distance from the cat. And to draw the cats attention to it, he points his figure in the direction of the bowl. Instead of looking at what the man is pointing to, the very thing that provides primal sustenance….food….the cat, instead, sniffs the end of the mans finger. Perhaps we all go through life merely sniffing the ends of fingers, rather than actually seeing the real source of nourishment that we need. As we spend our days obsessed with sports, reality tv, hamburgers and beer, maybe we are just sniffing the fingers of those pointing us away from what we really need. A metaphor for life? Art? Language? Music? Only if you try to see.
(Inspired by an article in the Guardian about an exhibit at the National Gallery in London.)
Hello. My name is James. I am a partner in an Art Services Firm, Henson-McAlister, in business since 1989.
My education and training is in Law, accounting, and religion, but I came to the art world willingly and enthusiastically.
I have decided to begin this blog as a way of talking about the things I value; the things that are most important to me, and why. Art is emotional, not cerebral. Since man’s beginning, art has been a mode of expression…a way to convey feelings, emotions, the joys and sadness of experiences, desires, and defeats. It has provided a means to enjoy triumphs, and a conduit to sooth pain. It is universal. We either create it ourselves, or we enjoy that which is created by others. But, we all partake. Painting, writing, music, pottery, architecture, objects used in our everyday lives. Even if we are not aware of the impact, our lives are made better by art. Art is beyond money, beyond, status, beyond ego, beyond a single lifespan.
In this blog, I hope to communicate one person’s everyday encounter with art, life, thoughts, and the texture created by the intersection of those on one person. I hope it will be interesting; possibly informative. But mostly, I hope it will be of some benefit to whomever might stumble across it.
James Fitz Mac