“The Pink Princess” 5.5″ x 7.5″ open, gouache casien wood, 2013

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         A pretty portrait of a child is often only of interest to it’s family.  I have tried to paint my daughter before but have never been fully satisfied with the results, technically or aesthetically.  This is a painting of my daughter, Molly.  I wanted something that was specifically her:  capturing some part of her personality without being cloying or saccharine.  This is the first image of her I’ve done that really reads for me.  A gorgeous bundle of sweetness, imagination and imperiousness all rolled into a pink Disney dress on an Ikea throne.

           It’s very hard for me to paint small children for one simple reason: they are out of proportion!  I was schooled in proportion and anatomy before I could read.  My mother is an artist and my earliest teacher.  She taught me all the golden rules of anatomy for adults, not children.  Kids are a whole different ballgame: their heads are to big, their faces are distorted… maddening, most of my attempts wind up looking like distorted adults.

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             I was once commissioned to paint two identical portraits of a toddler for a divorced couple living on either side of the Atlantic.  I painted them simultaneously, side by side, measuring with calipers as I went along.  They were identical in every regard but, for some reason which I couldn’t resolve, one captured the essence of the child while the other seemed lifeless.  When I presented them to the father (who’d ordered them) he immediately pointed to the lively one and said “That one’s mine.”  The other was shipped off to the UK.  I hope the mother liked it, it only suffered when compared to it’s twin.

          Molly thinks this painting looks mean.  I had to promise her, and my wife, that I would paint a “pretty” picture of her in exchange for being allowed to finish this one.

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“#3, 142 7th avenue, Brooklyn, March 1986” mixed media, 19” x 22” 2007-09

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  As a child I spent a good deal of time wandering the Brooklyn Museum.  The section that fascinated me most was the period room wing.  Sure, very nice rooms from the Vanderbilts or whatever but the amazing parts, the bits that could hold me rapt for hours, staring intently, were the scale models of the buildings that the rooms came from and the fact that the room I was looking at was recreated in miniature next to the real thing.  One of the most important things a work of art does for me is create a sense of intimacy, an almost conspiratorial closeness between the viewer and the artwork.  Those models demanded an ever closer examination and engagement.  The reward for me was to be lost in a private world as an active participant.  This is the singular goal for everything I make.

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I have an absolutely horrible memory.  When I do remember things it feels detached, like something I saw in a film or read rather than an actual experience.  As a result, much of my work is an elaborate mnemonic exercise.  I’ve always envied people who remember things “like it was yesterday”.  The only way I can approach that visceral sensation is through my art, digging, parsing, dissecting.  Start with the some core element then work outwards.  Old photographs retain importance as much, if not more, for the background bits as for the subjects. Reconstruct detail, scale and spacial relationships in a series of Aha! Moments.  When it works I am able to keep that as a real memory.  While much of my work is obsessively autobiographical, I don’t think there is anything exceptional to it, and for me, that is it’s beauty.  If I am really lucky, some viewer may look and see some commonality with their own world, like a little boy with his nose pressed against the glass of a showcase at the Brooklyn Museum.

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This is a model of my old apartment as it appeared in the spring of 1986.  By pulling info from old photos, measuring things that I still have.  I never considered it a dollhouse and approached purely as sculpture.  Every element is made by me with the exception of the doorknob, and that still bothers me.  I’d look into a dollhouse shop in NYC every once in a while looking how things were done in mini, asking arcane questions of the shopkeeper and ultimately walking out with one or two sheets of basswood. I think he must have dreaded my visits, which, in retrospect, were utterly useless.  American Miniaturist magazine saw this room on my old website and asked if they could write an article about it.  Initially I was aghast, “This is not a dollhouse!?!”  Then I got over myself and realized that most people would see it as a miniature first and foremost.  They weren’t making me compromise the work so, sure, why not.

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And here we are

By the fall of 1981, I’d decided that I couldn’t stand my school: Pratt-Phoenix School of Design, or my major: illustration.  I hated being a monkey who executed other people’s ideas and, being told that I should be an art director, realized that I also hated having monkeys executing MY ideas.  I despised the egocentric graphic design aesthetic and the anal retentive mentality of mistaking skill for talent.  In other words, I was a cranky bastard.  I quit my school four credits short of graduating, applied to the School of Visual Arts as a fine arts major and decided to take a semester off slumming around the UK.

            I had no clue what it was I wanted to do as an artist, or what my voice was.  I loved making things: furniture, sculpture, paintings, models, etc.   The only common thread that ran through them was that they were things that fascinated me at any given moment.  Maybe a trip would broaden me.

            The only plans I had made were to get a rail pass and a list of museums and artwork I wanted to see.  After a week or so in London I headed to Oxford for a day or two to see some Pre Raphaelites at the Ashmolean.  There was a Burne-Jones I particularly wanted to see.  No sooner did I arrive than I ran into an old grammar school classmate who was attending Oxford on a rugby scholarship. Rugby? From Brooklyn? How do you even do that?  Well, he insisted that I come with him to this great pub, the Turf.  I didn’t need to be asked twice to go drinking.

            Lukewarm stout you can eat with a fork, yum! Coming back from the bar with some drinks and there she is, sitting on my bench, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.  Before you cite me for objectifying women by calling her “thing”, understand that she wasn’t just the most gorgeous girl I’d ever seen, she was prettier than sunrise, puppies or a unicorn flying over a damned rainbow!  I am transfixed.

            “Am I sitting in your seat?” she asked me, breaking me out of my stupor.  “No, no, no…”

            I was madly in love with this girl before I’d even exhaled so I sat next to her and instantly started babbling.  How to chat up the love of your life when you are a bundle if nerves?  Simple, start an argument with her friend, that’ll impress her!  So I did, until I had enough nerve to start speaking to her directly, and when we finally started speaking, we continued for the next twenty-four hours.  Marina seemed to genuinely like me but rebuffed my advances and I was too much the earnest young man to push my luck.  Ultimately, I was hanging in the pseudo-friend zone, which was doubly painful as she never left my side (except for school and sleep) or let go of my hand. I spent the rest of my trip in Oxford, largely wasting my Britrail pass.  In the days before interwebs, facebooks and skype, a long distance relationship was pretty difficult and when it was time for me to leave, we left it as a self-contained moment in time.

            Now to my point, finally.  When I got back to Brooklyn I had two photographs of Marina and weeks worth of memories I desperately wanted to retain.  I painted a number of pictures of her based on those photos but none of them captured what I wanted.  Then I decided to make a miniature gouache of her to carry around in my pocket but how to protect it?  Little doors would do the trick, now I had two additional surfaces to paint on.  Once I’d finished it, it struck me like a punch in the face: THIS IS HOW I THINK!  Suddenly, everything made sense and I knew what I wanted from art and what was important to me.

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            SVA in the early eighties: neo-expressionism by the foot, structuralism,  Donald Judd whining about content and there I am, hunched over a tiny piece of board painting my little autobiographical pictures as my friends are standing on folding chairs, working on massive canvases that are going to tell the world exactly what is wrong with it.  I developed a reputation as a hapless romantic in my tweed suits, carrying my supplies in a violin case.  Pretentious? Moi?  But of course!

            Two years later, my friend and I are back in the UK on holiday.  Marina had become my unwitting muse and the center of my ever-expanding iconographic vocabulary.  Even after I’d moved to other subjects, she still appeared: the brick wall, pink sweater and more obtuse references that are my business alone.   Since we were there, of course I had to visit Marina.  It was also a chance to prove that this all-consuming girl of my dreams actually existed.  I was finally going to see her again, staying at her family’s house for the night.  Though I’d finally been able to start dating again after about a year, no one had ever broken through like her.

            She was a horror!  She seemed annoyed that I’d even come and only took the night off from work because her mother insisted she be a polite hostess.  I think my friend took some degree of pleasure in this as he had been listening to my stories of her for the last two years.  Bored with our awkward chatter in the study, he soon fell asleep.  No sooner does he pass out than she reverts to the warm, sweet girl I’d lost my heart to and again we were talking til the sun came up.  I gave her a small triptych I’d made of her as a thank you gift and off we went to Stonehenge.

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            Great, I thought I’d gotten her out of my system but she’d unknowingly wound herself back around my gut.  Right, nice guys do, in fact, finish last so goodbye tweed, hello leather jackets.  I saw Marina one more time the following year as she had come to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  She phoned me out of the blue and I ran to meet her for lunch!   Wait a minute!  This girl has clog danced on my heart for the last three years, enough!  Time to move on, so while I did meet her, she got to see me in the full flower of my assholiness.  I was cool, collected and indifferent and by the end of the afternoon she was probably sorry she’s rung me.  I later found out that she had finally decided to give me my shot but in my smugness I’d completely blown it. Over the following years, lots of other stuff happened and my Marina imagery morphed from pure, romantic love to a sense of loss.  I missed missing her.

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            Years later, by 2003 I had reached a point where I was utterly joyless, hated my life… and my artwork.   I’d become so detached from what was important to me, how did I get here?  I used to love my work, I was passionate and everything was important, where did I go wrong?  I decided to retrace my steps and try a sort of mnemonic exercise.  I tried to create a variant on what I’d considered my first real piece of art: the triptych of Marina I’d done all those years ago.

            A gallery I was showing with in Rhode Island (sadly, no more) put it on their website.  Right about that time, Marina was looking at the old portrait I’d given her with her daughter.  They wondered what had ever become of me and decided to google me.   The first thing that slowly fills the screen (dial up) is a NEW painting of a seventeen-year-old Marina!  She emails the gallery, they put us in touch and here we go again.

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            Now we are middle aged, both married, settled into our lives, I can finally speak freely and tell her of the powerful influence she’s had on my life and the artist, and man, I became as a result, after all, the past is in the past.

            We become pen pals, I write her tales of all the horrid things I’d done and what a jerk I’d been over the years.  She tells me all about her life and I hang on every word.  I’m focused on my work again, in my art at least, I’m happy again.

            After a few years of this, we were best friends and I was just happy to have her as part of my life.  A day without a note from her was absolute misery but if you asked me if I was in love with her I could honestly answer of course not, we’re just friends, she’s got a perfect life.  But I hadn’t seen her in over twenty years.  She decided to fly over for a visit.

            Seeing her at the airport after all these years I was hit with the same intensity of emotion as in that dark pub in Oxford. Uh Oh… THAT’S what this is…. While I probably overshare my own story, it’s not my business or interest to tell other’s tales.  Suffice it to say, this time it was mutual.  We agreed we wanted to marry before we’d ever even had our proper first kiss, and here we are.

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