The Painted Ocean

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Paul Valery wrote, “The sea, the sea always begins again.” For the past 3 months, I’ve been working on a painting of the ocean and each time I set out to paint felt like I was beginning again. The canvas is 12 feet long and the inspiration for it came from the much smaller painting above – which was done about 4 years ago in the late fall while I was living in Point Lookout.

For the past 25 years, I’ve lived within a half mile of the beach and have spent countless hours in and around the ocean in every season. It’s by the sea that I am most at home. Such a large canvas (nearly the width of a two-car garage) provides an opportunity to capture and express the ocean’s body and soul in spectacular fashion.

Because the sea is always beginning again, always changing, and because the states of mind and moods that I bring to the beach have run the gamut of human emotions, the question became which beach to paint? The small painting above was painted during a bleak moment by the shore. I’m reminded of something that Ishmael says in introducing himself as the narrator in Moby Dick: “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…then I account it high time to get to the sea as soon as I can.” So while this painting has beauty, it is for me that melancholy glow of wearied romantic in a damp, drizzly November in the soul.

This color palette and the rhythm of the paint are very much of the North Atlantic Ocean that surrounds Long Island. Here the Atlantic is a moving mix of grayish blues, sod greens, smatterings of indigo and of course foam that ranges from a sandy tan to the white of snow. These are mature colors, seasoned, and even at it’s most inviting there’s a reservation to it all. On the brightest, most placid summer day, it will still whispers of raging winters. All that being said, the North Atlantic is the ocean I know and the one I set out to capture on canvas.

2 months into the work, something unexpected happened. My family and I took an impromptu trip to the west coast. For 9 days, I lived next to the Pacific Ocean, from Monterey to Big Sur to Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Long, lovely days on beaches, cliffs, balconies, piers – always with my eyes upon the Pacific. What beautiful colors! Turquoise, aquamarines, sun-drenched cyan, navy intermingling with denim and a dash of the sky. A tapestry of azure that had a warm sweetness to it, vs. the cold, salty beaches I call home. 

This Pacific rainbow of blues came together in long, rolling waves that sculpted themselves as avalanches of elegance careening to the shore. As we surfed and watched others surf, the thought occurred that water as a symbol of god’s presence is never more acutely felt than from a board in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by waves of water. It reminded me of the great Philip Larkin poem that begins, “If I were called in to construct a religion, I should make use of water.” Each day the color and the rhythm of the Pacific became more palpable and deeply absorbed. I took it home with me and began again to paint. 

The large canvas is now complete, the image appears below. It’s a love song for the sea, where eternity begins and ends with every wave, and where an infinite rhythm reminds us that the living moment is everything. 

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Collaborating w/ Kahn & the Incomplete

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About 2 years ago, I stumbled across the book Drawing to Find Out, By Michael Merrill. It was late at night and I was on Amazon.com. I can’t recall what I was looking for, but for certain it was not a book on architectural drawings. This was one of those barely linear escapades whereby I kept following Amazon’s suggestions that “Readers who bought this book also bought that book.” It’s amazing the gamut one can run abiding these recommendations. So multiple clicks along this trajectory brought me to Merrill’s book. I purchased it on a late night shopping whim.

The book documents the creative process and drawings made by architect Louis Kahn in preparation for the building of a convent. The project was called The Dominican Motherhouse and it was never built. The Nuns backed out of the endeavor before construction began and Kahn moved on to other projects. The book describes Kahn’s engagement with the Dominican Nuns and the way he and his colleagues envisioned and developed their plans for the building, which was to be built on a large tract of forested land not far from Philadelphia. The text sheds interesting light on how complex the relationship between an architect and client can be, as this relationship hits upon utility, identity, finances, aesthetics, and ego.

Two things about the book captured my interest. First, the book is beautiful and is filled with intricately detailed drawings by Kahn and his architectural colleagues. The early drawings combine qualities of primitive geometric abstraction and thoughtfully engineered doodles. Below are a couple of the drawings. I had not seen anything like them before. They struck me as being frameworks for abstract thinking with a lot of loosely constructed data embedded throughout each one.

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The second element that drew my interest was Merrill’s insightful writing on Kahn and Kahn’s philosophy of “uncompleted things.” A couple of Kahn’s quotes along these lines include:

The value of uncompleted things is very strong…if the spirit is there and can be recorded, what is lost?”

“Recording of that which has not been done must be made much of.”

“That which has not been built is not really lost. Once its value is established, its demand for presence is undeniable.”

I was immediately fascinated by this philosophy of uncompleted things and the applicability of this idea far beyond the world of architecture and into the very fabric of my life. Often I find myself discouraged when considering the ocean of uncompleted things in my life. But are they uncompleted if I carry the fully formed ideas with me? What a radical shift in thinking this represented.

One more quote that Merrill includes, this one from Martin Steinmann (also an architect/critic), “One aspect of our fascination with good architectural drawings is that through a combination of precision and incompleteness, they make us collaborators in the process of making.”

This idea was my launching point. I decided to approach these drawings as exercises in perceptual learning and abstraction: looking deeply into these drawings, extracting and reducing lines, forms, and movement, and then building upon the perceived patterns and frameworks with ink and paint. Here are a few of the results:

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