Mac Arthur Studio Presents – All about me
So this is a bio. OK. I won’t bore you but if you read it all, I promise you will be entertained. And by that time, you will know me and what makes me tick.
I was born in Washington DC. Art making began with a bucket of orange paint and a morning plein air of sorts adventure. I was about 3 when I discovered a bucket of orange paint, a large brush and a never ending series of basement windows in the apartment project on Porter Street NW, Washington DC. I had my assistant (younger brother Chris) carry the bucket as we moved from one window to the next and I painted rather abstract shapes on each of them. When my parents were notified, they were not happy.
I was given crayons. Lots of crayons. They were stored in a old Maxwell House coffee can. I carried them everywhere. No wall was safe. Apparently, neither was I. My mother was giving my brother a bath and sat me on the toilet. I had paper in my hand and she would pass me crayons as I requested a color. Between scrubbing Chris and handing me crayons, she found it impossible to keep up with my requests. I leaned down to get a crayon and fell. Sadly I landed, right leg first, on the sharp edge of that damn coffee can. My leg was severed right below where a kneecap had not yet fully formed. All I remember is the black and white checkerboard design of the floor and I man putting a belt around my thigh and carrying me out. I later learned he was a neighbor. He drove a cab so he was home at bath time. I was taken to Children’s Hospital where my leg was resecured and stitched up. A cast was placed on my leg at a 90 degree angle so I could easily sit in a chair, a baby stroller and a swing. My entertainment for the next 6 months was Crayola and newsprint. Coloring and absorbing the cohabitation of colors. I was taken care of by Rosie. Yep, after my fall, my parents hired a nanny. She became my primary caretaker.
I healed. I learned to walk again surprising the doctors. And then I ran and ran and ran. In first grade I ran in a race during our May Day festival. I won. My prize was a rosary and a small book of paintings by the old masters. (Millet and the Angelus, DaVinci and the Creation, Botticelli and the Birth of Venus.) All summer I copied and copied those paintings.
Then we moved to the magical neighborhood of Adams Morgan. The zoo was close enough that we heard the lions and tigers roar each evening. One day, I convinced my brother we should go find them. Off we went. We found a spot and we could see the elephants. I was sure Africa was just down the hill. It was in that area I found pokeberry bushes. I picked the berries and brought them home. I took 3 mason jars out back. One with water, one with pokeberry juice and water and one with pure purple pokeberry juice. I used a makeup brush of sorts I had secreted from my mother’s dresser and began painting on the newsprint. Two values. It was grand until my mother came looking for the brush.
My father, trying to keep the peace, bought me a little watercolor set. Newsprint was not working well but I pressed on with my “real” paints and my new brush. I had color! Who could ask for anything more?
We only stayed on Lanier Place for about a year. I painted each day. My father was the Assistent Drama Editor for the Evening Star, so we had a tv. There was Andy Devine and Winky Dink. There was Superman. Winky Dink allowed you to place a piece of green plastic over the tv screen and use their magic crayon to draw whatever Winky Dink needed to escape various perils. i.e. a window and then a ladder so he could escape a room. Superman was mesmerizing. Unfortunately, a little creative mind could never separate fact from fantasy. One afternoon I pinned a blue bath towel around my neck and leapt off the wall behind our backyard. Thought I could fly. Well, I did fly. Twelve feet head first into the alleyway. Must have knocked me out cold. I don’t remember the ambulance ride or the hospital care. I was brought home stitched up and groggy. My next clear memory was being taken to see Peter Pan on stage. Mary Martin soared above the stage as Peter. The story was a dream come true. The rest of the time we lived there I would sit in my window sill each night waiting for Peter to come. He never did. We moved again.
Our new home was way out in the suburbs. I attended St. John the Evangelist. Part of that schools curriculum was art. We learned finger painting and I loved the feeling of being part of the effort. We studied famous artists. We made little Mexican houses out of bars of soap. At home, I was the newsprint artist. Jon Gnagy had a tv show and I had the corresponding kit. Yes, I learned to draw from him and a book by Nicolaides that my father had in his study. My father was a hobby artist. He was good. I wish he has shared his techniques rather than practice behind closed doors.
In the summer/fall of 1956 my father took me to the opening of the movie “Lust for Life”. Kirk Douglas was there to support the film and meet with the critics. He was dressed in costume and looked every bit Vincent VanGogh. I had seen his picture in the World Book Encyclopedias my parents had bought from a door to door salesman. Yep, I was sure I was meeting Vincent. He handed me a little pochade box that had 5 tubes of the most archaic acrylic paint and a brush. It was a prop. No matter. Nothing could convince me that Vincent had not presented me with the paint set he used to create his masterpieces. Yes, the movie had too much dialogue but a lot of beautiful art. I was the most inspired ten year old in the building.
So, I began painting in earnest. On cardboard now. One more thank you to the Evening Star for providing remnants of this and that which my father brought home. I was probably about 12 when I discovered canvas panels. Now the art world was on my doorstep. Well actually it was across the street. The Maryland School of Art opened at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Evans Parkway. Adjacent to the building was a large wooded area. I would climb a tree that gave me a good voyeuristic spot. I watched artists draw and paint. It was in that tree I learned another important lesson. I could see 8-10 artists and the legs of the model. I could see their work. Wow, 8-10 artists all painting the same model and there were 8-10 distinct different interpretations and 8-10 really good pieces of art. None of them looked the same. Now that was a very important lesson. Everybody sees and creates in their own voice and style.
On to high school. My folks sent me to Good Counsel, an all boys Catholic School in Wheaton. I kept drawing. Did a portrait of John and Jackie Kennedy. My father showed his friend Ethel Kennedy and she took it and showed the President. He wrote a note.
“Nice work, keep at it. John Kennedy”. I wanted to be an artist. My parents advised me to focus on learning so I could get a real job. Focus? I got shoved, pushed and punched at the new school. Art slowed down and avoiding bullies began. I was but 5 feet tall on my tip toes. I was chubby. I did not know any of the other students. In my second year, I flunked religion on purpose. Failure at a Catholic High back then meant – adios. Off to public school. Silly me. I did not realize failing religion meant I had failed the 10th grade. I headed to Northwood a year older than classmates and a complete stranger in their midst.
It seems I was not disciplined enough for academic studies. I attended English, Typing, Advanced Composition and History or Science. I took part in the minimal amount to amass enough credit to graduate. In a school of 500 or so students, once again I was a stranger in their midst. Fortunately, I found an angel. Mrs. Davila the art teacher welcomed me to her classroom anytime I walked in. Spent the vast majority of 3 years in her room. She was my teacher, my confidant and my savior. She didn’t care if I wore the same clothes everyday. She didn’t care if I had not bathed or brushed my teeth. She only cared that you were interested in learning.
“Paint what isn’t there and you will have created what is there.” “Complementary colors work best when both are present in the proper proportion” “If values are correct, color will not matter.” “If you want to listen to other people, go to an orchestra event.” “Feel your way through your work.” “Don’t lick your brush.” “You will discard more than you will keep.” “Practice, practice, practice and practice some more.” “Have fun”.
Oh she offered tips and when she was on a roll, they fell rapid fire from her lips. Her most important statement to me (and probably every other student) “I care.” I believed her and she became a comfort and a rock. She probably didn’t remember me a year after I was gone, but I had her forever.
Art and everything else took a break for about 18 months. I received a draft notice. I enrolled in the Marines. I was a conscientious objector. Canada would have been the easy way. I went through a bit of training. Then my beliefs ran up against the war machine. Spent 30 days in correctional custody. Examined by Marine psychiatrist. It was recommended I be discharged. Well, that recommendation document was rolled up and thrown in my face. I was told prepare to go fight a war. I chose Hollywood and Sunset Strip. Spent about a month living on the streets, smoking pot and singing songs. Had a phone conversation with my father. You signed up, finish what you started. Then I went back. I was presented an article 32 document advising me of the charges and my rights. I refused to sign. Perplexed, they sent me to the brig until I would sign. Labeled a “danger to the USA” and not wanting me to influence other prisoners, they confined me to various 8′ by 8′ solitary confinement cells for the majority of my time. The only time I was sent to another barracks, I went outside with others for a “monitored” break. Oddly, the guards vanished back inside at the same time a group of prisoners gave me a beat down. No real harm, just a return to solitary. After about 11 months, I was offered the opportunity to agree I was not suitable for the Marines. I was discharged, driven to the Camp entrance and dropped off. Free at last. I had on white chinos, a white t shirt, a brown corduroy coat, keds and fake white dove on my shoulder. What a sight I must have been walking down the road to Oceanside. Marines and their families driving by on their way to and from Camp Pendleton.
I stayed home for about a week. My next journey was to Baton Rouge. I was going to study art at LSU. My father told me he knew the dean and just mention his name. You know how that ended. I went to the dean’s office. No SATs, no college entrance scores and no real plan on hand when I arrived there. Of course, the dean had no idea who my father was and I had no transcripts, nothing. It was not all bad. I packed light and caught a roundabout ride north and then back south across Lake Pontchartrain to New Orleans. Now I found Nirvana. Rented a garage with plumbing for $50 a month. Paid for a spot on the fence surrounding Jackson Square and joined a vibrant artist community. I learned the big difference between tourist art and art. Seasoned veterans of the life schooled me on repetition being the mother of eating. I loved it.Then winter came. Cold came. Disillusionment took hold. Tail between my legs I headed back to Maryland.
Fathered children. Ran for Congress. Had dozens of jobs to support the family and my zeal to create. I spent the better part of the decade demonstrating against the war, demonstrating for the freedom of Leonard Peltier and raising kids while working two or three different jobs at a time. My father died without much of a goodbye. He was sick then he was gone in a flash. I was in my mid-twenties and his death crushed me. Time passed and then my mother died. She lay in pain in her hospital bed. I told her, “Let go.” She answered, “I’m not ready yet.” I fell asleep in the chair. She died. I never got to ask so many “whys”. Like most children of alcoholics, my siblings and I were left to sort out the carnage without any understanding from whence it came.
I got back into oils. Fervently producing two, three or four paintings a day. I was pigment again. I look back and feel badly for the swath of broken hearts and unkept promises that I left in my wake. Those outside the bell jar will never truly understand the suffering and pain that accompanies even mild mental illness. Depression is a real part of the roller coaster artists ride throughout their life. No excuse for behavior, just the reality behind the actions. More women. More moving. More careers. None of them could possibly last. Heart wasn’t in any of it. I would agree to damn near any relationship that offered me time and a place to paint. Big jobs, little jobs, they were all just a place to pass through for me. The hospital industry, advertising industry, music industry and so on were all stops for me. I was comfortable chumming around with Marion Barry and spending time with Willie Nelson as well as Margo Timmons and the Cowboy Junkies. Just folks to me.
Now, I closed out my days working for the man at Visual Systems. It was an art supply company with two locations. Granville Smith owned the company. He was a hustler and when the boon hit, he began selling Beanie Babies in the art stores. When his focus fell off art supplies, the firm began to have trouble. It wasn’t long before we received the order to throw everything art related in the dumpsters. He was moving down the street and was going to focus on Beanie Babies. The night following the trashing everything, I returned, flashlight in hand and began filling my car with as much booty as would fit. My car was small so I made several trips to garner as much as I could. To this day, I still have reams of 300# cold press water color paper, tubes upon tubes of watercolor paint, boxes of paint brushes and a few easels. Visual Systems name got sold and he continued under some other name.
My friend Steve’s father owned two Sir Speedy shops. They offered me a job. Working for Sir Speedy gave me the opportunity to do artwork for the Maryland Jockey Club, the Spy Museum at NSA and a chain of nursing homes for their magazine covers. I was selling art and taking part in shows. I had dealt with the tight rules at Marriott, the vast offices at AOL and the anal retentive Dan Snyder (pre-Redskins) and developing a thicker skin. I had commissions refused when completed. There were times I even had to return after dark to collect a piece I had thrown in the dumpster when the woman refused to pay. It was a lot of learning and validating my feelings about corporate america.
Then the Maryland Jockey Club called. Asked me to do the art for the Preakness. I had just finished stints at the Laurel Art Guild as vice-president and then President. My best friend Steve served with me as we alternated titles. The Preakness was a learning experience. The weekend between the Derby and the Preakness is the day Laurel holds it’s Main Street Festival. I had a booth/tent featuring horse racing themes. The closest I came to a sale was a portly gent inquiring if I would reduce my price on a painting he liked. I told him I don’t change prices during a one day event. He replied,”$200 !!! I can go down to the Walmart and get a Monet (he pronounced it “Monnet like bonnet “) for $29 and 95 cents”. And the left the tent in a huff. Packed up and headed to Saratoga. Friend had a booth. Doubled prices. Sold out in a weekend. Sometimes your happiness is found when your dreams dance to the what the band is playing.
I had left yet another broken heart and moved into a studio in Laurel. Same dimensions as New Orleans. Enough room for artwork, supplies and a bed. My kind of living quarters. People came. Art sold and I was in my element. I just didn’t earn enough money selling art to support myself and cover all my obligations. Drastic times called for drastic measures. You can never just go back, you have to keep on moving forward. I got my real estate license. I was boss of me.
A new woman and new home. An attic area to paint. Time I could control. Contentious living is not the best road to travel. Oh, I got back to New Orleans and I was able to take part in Spoleto in Charleston. Even ran into some artists I lived with in the French Quarter. Spent an evening reminiscing. A sweet night of togetherness with like minded folks. A night to remember. But, that new woman and newer home were fast becoming a horror chamber. I had a studio. I did shows. The woman fancied herself as a photography genius and wanted to offer her wares in my shows. She never accepted or understood the concept of juried.
Bruised, battered and beaten, I accepted. My choice. My problem. My bad. I painted. I sold lots of real estate and painted some more. I began selling more. People like my work! It just became harder and harder to produce with warden watching every move. If I had a street fair, she was there. Castigating potential customers that bypassed her photos. It is hard to express or explain. Close your eyes. Try to imagine the scent of Blue Plains wafting through the air. Imagine that is all you can smell. That is what the new house became. A place I could not breathe. Moved out to the porch for a year. The epitome of heat in the summer and oh so damn cold in the winter. Just couldn’t live in there anymore.
Met the final woman. Moved out and into my real estate office. After a bit, I was in my final house. Accepted, loved and supported, I was truly finally born. My artwork increased. My circle of artists friends grew and grew. For the first time, I believed I could be me. And I was. Then, she gave me Paris. Again and again. Every year. Beyond Paris, she gave me Germany, Italy, the Vatican, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium and beyond. She gave me Arles. She gave me Sarlat. She gave me Venice. She gave me time under the Tuscan sun and the Loire Valley. She gave me Aix-en-Provence. Places I dreamed of visiting became a reality. She supported me. Lunches were packed when I went plein air painting. As much as she scolds for having paint on most of my clothes, she proudly hangs my art in the living room.
So there you have the cliff notes version. Yes, my art slips to impressionism but several pieces are classical in nature or just different. It is not much, but it is all I have to offer you.
Peace & Love