Friday, February 29, 2008

Out of the Blue

I’ve been painting on the beach using a church barbecue shed for a studio, which I occasionally share with a herd of goats that wander freely across the island. One afternoon I heard a loud sizzle and crack, and looked toward the highway from which the noise came. A white pick-up truck stopped in the middle of the road. The passenger door slammed, a man ran into the road and returned with an unconscious goat which was dropped into the truck bed with a thud and the truck sped away. The event was disturbing, not so much for the fate of the goat which was raised for meat, but for the quickness with which the goat met its fate at the end of a stun gun. Documentary images of speeding Toyota trucks packed with death squads and spiked with automatic weapons popped to mind. Before witnessing the startling efficiency of the goat harvesters, I had protected myself with the fantasy that deadly attacks could be avoided if one was quick.

This seemed like a good a moment to take a break and enjoy the day.

I decided to take a walk up Ram Head, the southern most tip of the island of St. John. To some this rocky mound that stretches on a long neck from the body of the island looks like the broad brow and curling horns of a ram. I don’t really see the ram, but I do see this thrusting spit of dome and cliff to be as bold as one.

The trail begins near a salt pond that the trade wind works to a lather.

From the salt pond I walked along a crunchy, coral-rubble path that skirts a pretty curve of bay. Soon the trail rose over a dry, sunny ridge…

that is home to barrel cactus and wild orchids.

At the crest of the ridge, Ram Head came into view. Without warning, a slab of cloud slid under the sun.

And in minutes the brilliant colors of the evening where extinguished and replaced with pewter. It was an afternoon for abrupt events.

As I proceeded up the trail, squalls swept in from the North, but each skirted Ram Head, which sat in its own patch of light.

On the crown of Ram Head, I saw the distant rain travel across the sea like a wet sable brush passing over fresh paper.

The tip of Ram Head…

makes a hasty drop to the sea, where the surf breaks over the rocks and swells the pools only to make a sloshing retreat.

Looking up and out to the west where I had hoped to celebrate the end of my visit to the island with a glitzy, sunset spectacle, there was only a cloudy sky and a sober stretch of silvery sea. I was disappointed.

But I soon noticed that the subtlety of the scene was just as beautiful as a dazzling sunset, and considering the suddenness of the other afternoon events, pleasantly uneventful.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sunrise on Drunk Bay

On Friday, February 15 I walked to Drunk Bay early in the morning before the sun showed itself. Drunk Bay on the island of St. John faces east and lies on the 18th parallel of latitude not far from the Tropic of Cancer, that imaginary ring around the earth which marks the most northerly latitude at which the sun can appear directly overhead at noon. Waiting for the sun, I looked across a stretch of ocean that breaks next on the shores of Dakar, Senegal and wondered what was happening around the world on the 18th parallel at that moment.

It didn’t take long for the sun to show itself on Drunk Bay. The first ray hit the beach at 6:45 AM to light a field of figures made from coral, drift wood and flotsam.

Due east at the same moment the sun hit its noon peak over the desert that lies between Timbuktu, Mali and the Darfur region of Sudan. That morning the Sudan Tribune had reported the following story:

Crammed into school buildings in the centre of Suleia, just 200 out of the West Darfur town’s original 25,000 population were left after an attack by militia and the Sudanese army.

Thursday was the first time anyone from outside had been able to reach the town and the people remaining were mostly elderly women, those with babies or old men.They were not able to run as far as others to escape the bombing and the militia who looted and burned and killed.

Suleia was targeted as part of an army offensive on three towns to retake them from the Darfur rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) almost a week earlier.

Among the survivors, Hawa Suleiman had no breast milk to feed her five-month-old baby after she spent a week under a tree with no food following the attack."The Janjaweed came and took everything, our food, our furniture," said the 35-year-old mother, who did not know where any of her other six children or her husband was.Her face, cut with traditional tribal markings, was worn with worry as she struggled to quieten her crying, hungry child. She said she came back on Thursday because she heard aid workers had brought food.

A joint U.N.-humanitarian convoy brought food to the area for the first time since mid-December. Some 160,000 people had been cut off from aid since then, said U.N. official Amy Martin.

"We have not bathed for a week," said 75-year-old Mohamed Eissa Abdallah, bent over double with age and leaning on a wooden staff. His face and clothes were caked with dust and mud."I buried my brother with my own hands," he said.
Many of the survivors said at least one member of their family had been killed.

A Sudanese staff of the International Committee for the Red Cross was killed in the attack on Suleia.

Washington calls the Darfur violence genocide, a term Khartoum rejects, blaming Western media for exaggerating the conflict.

The offensive was the largest in many months and aid agencies say it affected 50,000-60,000 people, less than initial rebel estimates of up to 200,000. Up to 12,000 refugees fled into neighboring eastern Chad, the U.N. refugee agency said.

Further east on the 18th parallel, the day was windless and dry in Sana, Yemen and very humid but dry and calm in Da Nang, Vietnam.

I don’t know who made the figures which lie on the shore of Drunk Bay. Probably one person got it started and then others added to the display.

The light was pink on the coral figures and the temperature was a pleasant 72 ° F. In Mumbai, India it was late in the afternoon, and a steamy 88° and the Times of India reported that Pakistani police had arrested another "important suspect" allegedly involved in the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto, taking the total number of people apprehended in the case to five.

It was 8 PM in Manila and earlier that day the Manila Times reported that Security officials said they had uncovered a plot by Islamic militants linked to the al-Qaeda network to assassinate President Gloria Arroyo and ‘other targets.’”

It was 70° and still dark in Acapulco, Mexico, but in nearby Port-au-Prince, Haiti the sky was just beginning to lighten.

When the sun was high enough to shorten the shadows and flatten the forms of the figures on Drunk Bay, I left.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Once I made a drawing using the phrase, “Total and complete fucking failure”, which was repeated in neat lines, over and over, until the page was completely filled. Oddly, the drawing was a minor success since the combination of the self-negating phrase with the grim determination to fill the page was comic. But sometimes projects fail, without any hope of redemption.

The life of a failed painting begins like any other. In the case of this small catastrophe, a pristine panel was placed before beautiful Haulover Bay in St. John. A few tender blues and greens were picked from the morning waves, before the sun was high enough to fully penetrate to the white sand below and send back to the surface the intensely saturated aquamarine for which the Caribbean Sea is famous. The pale colors were applied with a small brush in concave strokes to make interconnecting, stretchy pentagons, which is a motif that describes the undulation of small waves. This cool color area was surrounded then with the yellow of an old sea grape leaf and tempered with small patches of white from the sun-bleached coral rubble. In the upper left a smudge of grey-green was added to represent the distant island of Tortola. The painting session was finished when a large, stretchy pentagon appeared on top of everything else as if to describe a large bubble rising from the floor of the ocean.

Back at the house, I returned to the picture. The bubble of space was the most engaging thing, so I set to work to litter the floor below the boil with interesting detritus like fragments of brain and fire coral. Next, I decided on an orientation for the image and placed a vignette of sky and shore in the upper third. And then the picture was put away.

After a few days of looking at the painting, I picked it up again. Although I still liked the bubble of space, the vignettes beneath were pedestrian and isolated from one another. Painting a discrete object is relatively easy, but painting the strong and weak forces that glue a diverse universe together is hard. To get deeper into the world of this picture, I re-entered with a disruptive attitude, intent on destroying the status quo. Large strokes of blue and red, saturated like the colors of the American flag, replaced the shoreline and set off an exciting collision of color. I turned the picture upside down and forced this new orientation into dominance by weighting the new bottom with large forms and intense pigments. By now the nuanced tints copied during the initial session at the beach were lost and replaced with coarser colors, which was a result of working from memory and impulse rather than direct observation. But there was still hope for a successful resolution, since a new visual drama appeared which seemed to benefit from the rawness of color. With the addition of fins, eyes, shiny skin, and slithery shape, three large brush strokes became a barracuda and two fat, fleeing fish. Satisfied with the visual invention that arose through insurrection, I put the picture away and went for a swim.

As more time passed the new spatial disruptions began to bother me, so I put the picture on the easel and once again turned it upside down, back to its original orientation. The crudeness of the scene would have been a virtue if balanced with a little finesse, so I worked with care to soften extraneous detail and strengthen the focus on the fish and the bubble of space. Several times the picture neared balance, but each time something was off and each time the correction led to new problems. The barracuda, disgusted with the lack decisiveness, left the picture. After so many corrections, the surface became overworked. So, in a last-ditch attempt to bestow grace, I rebelled once again by downing a rum and coke early in the day. Predictably, the alcohol improved my confidence but not my judgment and the picture failed.

All that was left was a fish, alone in a muddy sea of compound mistakes.

It’s time, now, is to get rid of everything. The shapes and colors and textures must be destroyed. History must be eradicated. Get the stripper and scrape the surface new. It’s time to annihilate this little failed world. There is a point when an environment can not sustain the mistakes of its inhabitants.

Monday, February 4, 2008

9 Paintings in Progress

The following 9 works were created out of doors in St. John, Virgin Islands. The title of each painting includes the date that the work was begun, the temperature of the moment, the latitude and longitude of the place, and a verbal description of the subject that motivated the painting.

"January 8, 2008. 75° F, N 18° 33, W 64° 79, Haulover Bay"

"January 13, 2008. 73° F, N 18° 33, W 64° 79, Leduck Island"

"January 14, 2008. 75° F, N 18° 33, W 64° 79, Haulover Bay"

"January 15, 2008. 72° F, N 18° 33, W 64° 79, Haulover Bay, Morning"

"January 15, 2008. 78° F, N 18° 33, W 64° 79, Haulover Bay, noon"

"January 15, 2008. 78° F, N 18° 33, W 64° 79, Haulover Bay, noon", DETAIL

"January 18, 2008. 72° F, N 18° 33, W 64° 79, Round Bay"

"January 18, 2008, 72° F, N 18° 33, W 64° 79, Round Bay", DETAIL

"January 23, 2008. 72° F, N 18° 33, W 64° 79, Haulover Bay, Morning"

"January 23, 2008. 83° F, N 18° 33, W 64° 79, Haulover Bay, Afternoon"

"January 23, 2008. 83° F, N 18° 33, W 64° 79, Haulover Bay, Afternoon", DETAIL

"January 30, 2008. 72° F, N 18° 33, W 64° 79, Haulover Bay"