In 1996 I had been doing still life paintings for two years. Before that, landscape had consumed all my efforts. Waterfall, my most ambitious composition up to that date, shows my lingering desire to hold on to the vistas I had loved as a landscape painter. The background to the arrangement is an oversize poster of a painting by Frederick Church: Niagara Falls From the American Side.
Church’s magnificent canvas is in the National Gallery of Scotland. There aren’t many American painters represented in that collection. Visiting the gallery in 1990, it was quite a surprise to round the corner and find this enormous example of New World virtuosity. It jumped out at me, and hung in my memory for a long time after. When I began setting up this still life, Church’s image seemed the perfect counterpoint to the cascade of blocks, planks and objects in my studio. The tiny figures in his painting, on the left, surveying the view from a rickety-looking wooden balcony, ended up looking out also on to my jury-rigged heap of a still life, dwarfed not only by Niagara Falls, but by the flowers from our garden.
Some of the objects in this arrangement were monumentally heavy. Tom Chapin, the sculptor, had given me the chunks of granite seen in the bottom right. The color, massiveness, and texture all attracted me to these stones. The polished surface on one plane contrasted with the roughness of another, which was broken by huge parallel drill marks–evidence of the artist’s work and the recalcitrance of the material. I had to have them. But my studio at the time was on the third floor of the old Danville High School building. No elevator: getting them upstairs was a back-breaking task. My father helped to carry them, politely refraining from wondering aloud about my sanity. Tom also provided me with the huge rough-sawn plank that supports the central vase. I used it and the stones in several still life paintings, aiming to avoid the conventional use of a table.
The flowers that loom over Church’s little tourists were all grown by my wife Ann. In her abundant cutting garden (below), she was the generous grower, and I was the reaper, coming every few days to slash more blooms than I could possibly paint. Rapacious, I wanted as much choice as possible upon my return to the studio. The river of blooms that passed through there, pausing in the vase to be painted before dying, stretched on longer than I can now remember, through most of late summer. The depiction of the bouquet grew steadily, with each addition jointed-in. The flowers seen here do not all bloom at once, and could only have come together through a synthesis of observation and imagination. And that vase they are in–the crazy black, yellow, and orange example of vintage Bohemian ware, one of Ann’s finds that became a staple of my still life collection–is much smaller than it appears here. In reality, the flowers had be in a bucket. The actual vase was only the model for its expansively redrawn image. Come to think of it, the poster of Frederick Church’s painting didn’t exist either. I used a photo in a book, and expanded it.
Other objects presented themselves from daily life. The Etch-A-Sketch belonged to my children. I painted it quickly and returned it that day. The ladder on the back wall was found in the alley by my studio, abandoned outdoors for good reason. Even when new, it must have been nearly useless, so crude was its construction; I found it broken and weathered. It doesn’t offer much promise of an exit from this room filled with oddly assorted things, and is less reliable than the balcony supporting the nature-lovers in Church’s painting. On the ladder hangs a trouble-light, which caught my eye while browsing one of my favorite places, Boyle Lumber & Hardware. That’s what the label on the store shelf called it. That melancholy name, and its delightfully jarring color, both appealed. I had to have it. Still life is really all about appetite.
Or it is about the vanity of life, the certainty of trouble, and the uncertainty of ascent to a better world—at least, it could be taken that way if you look back at the vanitas paintings of the Dutch Old Masters. I didn’t include a skull, though, as Jaqcques de Gheyn did, in his seminal example of the genre now in the Metropolitan Museum (photo below). I did include a lobster, though, in homage to those old Dutch and Flemish painters, like Willem Kalf, who were virtuoso describers of luxurious banquets. It came from Walmart. After a few hours in the studio, during which I painted with deliberate speed, the lobster went out to the dumpster. Ars longa, vita brevis.