Friends - With the last hours of 2013 winding down, I hope this email finds you well.
I have spent the majority of December cooped up in my studio with Christmas commissions. And though I am a bit exhausted from the late evenings, I feel so honored and grateful to do this work. Check out the commissions below and my reflections on each.
A thousand thanks for the support, encouragement and interest in my work over the past year.
Wishing each of you a joy-filled 2014.
Stories Told By Paint
Painting is a strange, solitary undertaking in many ways.
I’m not entirely sure what it is that motivates me to lock myself in a freezing room for hours on end with only fumes and the occasional mouse to keep me company. And the truth is many days I am not motivated to paint.
I trudge over to my studio after work, the northern sky already fading into a wintry cobalt blue. I grudgingly flip on the lights and fastidiously light my propane heater after singeing off half of my eyelashes while firing up that bad boy two weeks ago. I scrape my two glass palates clean and spend an hour mixing a hundred flesh tones.
However, once I begin to apply paint to canvas, something happens. My attitude shifts. As I build the framework of the face – forehead, cheekbones, chin - the figure begins to take form. And not just anatomical form. Something in their spirit seems to emerge as well. Behind each set of eyes I paint there is an entire life and story.
I begin my Christmas commissions with Hamilton Davis O’Donnell Jr. - known as “Jr.” among family and “Don” by his wife. He served as an officer in WWII and would have been 97 years old in November.
And although I’m working off of a black and white photo, I have painted enough faces by now to know which colors to fill in where – the warm orange glow that outlines the ears, the cool bluish/gray under the eyes, the nearly imperceptible pink line that separates the bottom lip from the flesh of the chin.
However some parts will always remain a guessing game. I could stare at the black and white photo of his face for hours and never know the exact intricacies of his hazel eyes – that specific point where they transition from a grayish green into a rich umber tone. I will never be able to extract these nuanced details, but I love knowing that his wife of 42 years could paint his hazel eyes perfectly on the canvas of her memory.
And so I stand in my studio alone, wondering whether Don – a man I never knew – got these beautiful eyes from his mother or his father and which of his children now have his.
My next painting is another WWII soldier, Omar Kayser, affectionately known as "Opa" by his grandchildren in his later years. According to his daughter-in-law Diane, Omar was a joy-filled man with a huge heart. To best explain his kind spirit, Diane shared a story with me about Omar during the war.
Never a man to break the rules, there was but one occasion when Omar was reprimanded by his supervisor while stationed in Germany. His crime? Feeding candy to German children who were starving.
When asked by his supervisor whether he would continue this unacceptable behavior, he replied, “Probably, sir”.
Although I never knew this man either, I love and respect him for seeing beyond the blurry lines of war to recognize those "enemies" for exactly who they were - hungry children.
After Don and Omar, I paint the lovely Dorothy Leonard. This piece was commissioned by her nephew, and my good friend, Ian Leonard. Dorothy passed away from ovarian cancer last year and according to Ian, left a lasting impression on everyone with whom she crossed paths. Although I never had the honor of crossing her path, it turns out my father knew her as a child.
The story goes like this...
A few years ago my siblings and I randomly bumped into Ian on a trip to Portland. We started chatting about our childhoods in respective Irish Catholic families. One story led to another and by the end of the afternoon we discovered that our fathers were next door neighbors throughout their childhood. When I met Ian in college, I never would have imagined he shared the same bloodline with “the Leonards” from my dad’s growing up stories.
The world weaves itself in wondrous ways.
And finally, after Dorothy and Omar and Don, there is sweet little Brayden with his cutest chubby baby fists and his still-changing eyes. He has his whole life ahead of him. His is a story just beginning to unfold.
And despite the late hours in the studio...and the fumes...and the singed eyelashes...ultimately I am only left with a feeling of tremendous honor to have captured a moment of that unfolding.