I rarely write about the “why” of my work. I am not sure if it is because I am too lazy or that I think it is self-explanatory, or if I would rather leave it up to the viewer. In any event, I have chosen to review my work in this blog as a way for me to evaluate the transformation in the direction of this work and also my life.
For more than a quarter of a century, my work has been mostly known for the urban landscape. This new work is a departure from that and depicts nature scenes from photographs I took during a four day trip in the summer of 2017, when my wife Emily and I visited collectors at their home in Franconia, New Hampshire, nestled in the White Mountains. The days consisted of hiking with the collectors, who took us to some of their favorite spots, so that I could experience and photograph the beauty of the mountains. The resulting two paintings are the realization of this trip.
I need to back up a few years to illustrate the path that lead to this creation. In essence, this legacy emanated at birth, but that will be for another blog. It was the fall of 2013, and my wife Emily and I were in our third year of having a second home in Boca Raton, Florida. She mostly stayed in Florida working full time as an assistant to the executive chef at Addison Reserve Country Club and I was going back and forth to our hometown of Binghamton, NY. I am deeply connected to Binghamton NY; it is where I grew up and where my loft, studio and gallery still exist in Downtown. My mother was in her eighth year of a diagnosis of stage 4 Multiple Myeloma. Throughout those years she had endured chemo, radiation and two stem cell transplants from Memorial Sloane Kettering Hospital in NYC. I was in Binghamton living alone for a few months and visiting my mother, who had just came back from a doctor’s appointment. The prognosis was not good and she was given four months to live. She did not know that. During that week, I consulted friends and family in the medical realm to confer. They all told me the same thing: It was inevitable. This was October. Soon after this, during a visit to my parents, an unanticipated argument arose between my mother and myself, and it stemmed from a belief in God. To provide some insight, we were raised Catholic and my mother became a born again Christian while I was in high school. I became agnostic. To my memory, this was the first time I can recall a real argument as an adult with my mother. It was tied up in God, but started with the politics that happened to be on TV – two topics most people know to avoid. I knew her death was imminent, and I was heartbroken at my lack of ability to de-escalate this argument or have it come to any verbal conclusion, but it seemed like an avalanche; once started it could not be stopped or put back in place. It is a moment forever etched in my memory.
I had also been playing in an adult men’s hockey league on Tuesday nights while in Binghamton. The Tuesday after this unfortunate argument with my mother turned out to be quite a life-changing event. During one of my shifts, I was heading up ice, looking for a pass. I was going full steam but unfortunately had my head down and was looking back for the pass. As I was zigging, a defender on the other team was zagging and we collided at center ice, both at full speed. I never knew what hit me, as I did not see him. I can only say that I have never felt anything like this in my life. As I flew back into the air, I eventually landed on my neck, with the base of my head hitting the ice and my legs going over me. I can only tell you this because that is what was relayed to me by the skaters who witnessed it. Disorientated and not able to catch my breath, I looked up and saw a white light. It turns out it was the lights shining down on me from above the ice rink. What I do remember is the players hovering over me, and the look on their faces. I wondered what they were watching, until they shouted at me not to move when I tried to get up. I had to sit up as I was gasping for air, not able to pull the oxygen into my lungs in my position, prone to the ice. There is no worse feeling than not being able to breathe. As I slowly got my breath back, I started feeling pain throughout my body, especially in my chest, neck, and upper back, and I could not move my left arm away from my body. I knew I had to get to the hospital soon. The guys helped me to the locker room and assisted me in removing my pads and skates. One guy insisted he would take me to the hospital but since the game was still going on, I thanked him and called my brother John, who came to take me to the hospital.
Surprisingly, after tests, x-rays and a neurologist visit the next day, I was told the good news was that there were no broken bones, but the bad news was that there was a lot of soft tissue damage and whiplash. These types of injuries take many months to heal. Whiplash recovery could possibly take up to a year. The doctor said the injuries were similar to that of an automobile crash. I never could have imagined the dark abyss that awaited me over the coming year.
So, you are probably reading this and wondering what hockey and cancer have to do with two paintings of the White Mountains. Life is a wonderful mystery. It now is evident that some of the most beautiful things that life has to offer are on the other side of great suffering and pain.
It took weeks before I could even get a shirt on. Because I was away from my wife Emily and my dog Nestle, I fumbled through mostly alone. Luckily my brother was living in an apartment below me and everyday would come upstairs to help me get dressed. I could only sleep on my back in one position and could not really move my upper torso. My body felt like it was a bundled up ball of rubber bands that were about to snap at any minute. I began getting very odd sensations that started in the base of my neck and shot up in to my head. It was a vibration that would rise and fall in intensity, but was always there in the background. What was probably the worst side effect of the collision was the unrelenting anxiety that washed over me. I had never experienced anything like this. Such a loss of control was frightening. It felt as if something else had inhabited my psyche and was running the show. My thoughts started to turn violent. I was afraid. Could this monster inside of me act out? Faced with this new existence, I knew I had two choices; end it all or find a way out. The doctors told me that what I was experiencing was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I knew that if I was to get better, I needed to be near my support system, Emily and Nestle. It was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make, as this meant leaving behind my dying mother, who I knew had only a few months to live. Unfortunately Emily’s job was in the height of the country club’s season, and she could not leave for an indefinite amount of time. It was the rational thing to do, but came at a great cost. I was of no help to my mother in the condition I was in. There was no real resolution to the argument we had and despite the condition she was in, her concern for me as her son became front and center. She understood that I needed to be in Florida. I knew it could be the last time I might see her, but I needed to heal. I called up a good friend and asked if he could drive me down to Florida and I would fly him back. There was no way I wanted to get on a plane at this time. He asked when I wanted to leave, and I said, “Today!” I am forever thankful to this friend who immediately drove two hours to get to me that day, help me load up the car and get on the road by the afternoon. We arrived in Florida the next night, which was about a month after the collision.
It was the right decision and I started to heal, slowly. I started researching natural ways to heal PTSD and anxiety. Meditation, yoga and walks in nature became my prescription. It was mid December, and I had been in Florida with Emily and Nestle for a little less than a month. I told Emily that I didn’t know where life was going to lead us, but I had to make healing my full time commitment and that I also desired to see my mother before she died. Which meant that she was going to have to take off work in now the busy holiday season. She did, and all of the family converged into Binghamton for what would be my Mother’s last Christmas holiday. Christmas was her favorite time of year. She put thought into gifts, made tons of beautifully delicious cookies, and exuded warmth and love for everyone. This year of course, she wasn’t able to do all of that, but we rallied. She was always a planner, and had her gifts ready a long time ago. Emily helped with the baking, and everyone came together, doing their part. It was perfect, and it was special.
Meditating, doing Yoga asanas and walking in nature became my daily life. I also read a lot. I read a lot about the brain and how it works. I wanted to know what happened to mine. A great book that helped me immensely is The Divided Mind, by Dr. John Sarno. My brother John sent me another book during this time called The Superbeings, by John Randolph Price. He had just listened to an interview with Peter Sage on a podcast and Peter talked about how this book changed his life. My brother knew my aversion to anything that had to do with religion and God, but said it was more spiritual and to disregard anything that I wanted while letting the underlying message come through.
I had just finished the Dalai Lama’s book The Art of Happiness, so it helped prepare me as well. Each book came to me as if I was on some divine life course. Many of the books came as unknown prerequisites to others, as I would not have been able to appreciate the message of the next if I hadn’t been primed by a previous title. I never chose these books; they chose me. Little by little I became empowered. Going 5 minutes without anxiety became a cause for celebration. When I could go for an hour without those feelings, I realized I was piecing my life back together. Meditation was showing me that I am just a witness to everything, even my pain and anxiety. The hardest thing was to just allow the violent thoughts I was having to exist and only be the witness. “This too shall pass,” became my present moment mantra. The yoga poses became a way for me to reconnect with my body. I was so afraid that one wrong move in my neck would paralyze me. I worked through the fear and did them anyway. Something very powerful was starting to happen. I did not completely get rid of the pain, fear, anxiety or negative and violent thoughts, but I could be OK with them there. I realized that if I had come this far in about 4-5 months that it should continue to progress with my prolonged practice. I was also starting to paint a little more and that felt good, as art had always been a form of release and meditation for me.
As fate would have it, I was FaceTimed into my Mother’s last doctor’s appointment in Binghamton in the beginning of February 2014. I became a spectator from afar to what I knew was imminent. The doctor finally told my mother that the end was close. It was almost 4 months to the day that he said she had no more than 4 months left to live. The time was here and I was watching everything transpire in that tiny hospital room, all viewed from my studio in Florida on my computer, as if I was watching a TV drama from my living room. Prior to the doctor coming into the room, my mother still had hope. She told me she was still fighting to be here and asked if she could watch me paint via FaceTime as I was using the computer in my studio. I did everything I could to stem the tears from streaming down my face and to just move that brush along the canvas. Time was a blur and I was hoping that the doctor would never enter the room and I could just sit there and paint for my mother into eternity. To just sit there, like she had taught me to do when I was four years old looking over her shoulder. But the doctor entered the room and I saw the faces of my mother, my father, my brother John and her doctor. These looks are ones that you hope you never see looking back at you. It was very similar to the hockey players surrounding me as I lay on the ice. I was numb. I then awkwardly tried to find a way to ask the doctor how much time I had to get back to Binghamton. He told me, “If it were me and that was my mother, I would be on the next plane back today.” I got off of the call and immediately booked tickets for me, my wife and oldest daughter, as we were all in Florida at the time.
There was no time for fear and anxiety to take over. I was fortunate that I was getting a better handle on everything, my PTSD, the anxiety, the pain. Not to mention, my mother’s will to live, no matter what she was going through, was, and always will be an indelible example. Nothing can take away your spirit unless you let it. The entire family was there the next day. We had an entire day with her before she slipped off into a coma. That night as we all said our last good byes, I waited for everyone else to leave and snuck one last peek at her before I left. Her last act, before she laid down and slipped into that coma was to get out her notepad that had all the people that she prayed for. I watched as she prayed, not for herself, but for those she was leaving behind. That night her sleep was that of a coma that lasted through the following day, and that evening she died.
One of my favorite places to enjoy nature is the Binghamton University Nature Preserve. It is where I hiked with my brother John, his family and my family the day my mother died. It was a snowy, glistening, tranquil place that day. One of those days where it has just snowed and everything is pristine and white. Her favorite season was winter and she loved it when it snowed. It was the perfect place to celebrate my mother’s life. We hiked, laughed, threw snowballs and forgot about loss for just a moment. I had never been to this preserve before and John had been coming for quite awhile to get away from the stresses of life. We both graduated from Binghamton University so it was a pleasure to return, and now I go back regularly. It was on the many subsequent hikes through these trails that I started taking pictures. There was never an intention of using the subject matter for a painting; they were just to help me remember the moment. I would go hike at any time of the day and during any season. Each time the trails took on a new light and the peace, stillness, and beauty, no matter the view or transformation, was instrumental in my healing process. Within 5-10 minutes of starting a hike my anxiety would disappear and a sense of peace would fill me. I learned a lot about change and was able to observe the cycles of life and death through nature.
In the months leading up to April of 2017, Emily was asked to help curate a small works show by Susan Meisel. Susan is the wife of Louis – of Louis K. Meisel Gallery, who has represented my work since 1993. It was not exclusive to just the artists in the Meisel stable, and Susan and Emily would scour the art fairs and Internet to find artists to participate. Any artist that could produce quality work under 12”x12” was invited to participate. I had never really done anything that small and was looking for source material when it dawned on me that it would be nice to try to paint some of these nature images I was taking on my hikes. It was a little daunting to see if I could capture nature in the same way that I had with my urban landscapes. Susan asked if I could have at least three paintings by the opening. I decided I would give it a try. It was challenging, not only in the subject matter, but also the size, as my paintings are typically 4’ x 7’ and larger. The small size felt limiting, but was a nice challenge.
As it was coming down to the wire for the deadline to make the opening, I felt satisfied with the results, but was wondering if I could ever create a large-scale nature painting. I was anxious to see what the reception would be towards these works. In fact I wasn’t going to bring one, but my wife convinced me to bring all three. We flew up to the opening at Meisel gallery in early April 2017. The response from collectors, dealers and other artists was very encouraging. Two of the three paintings were sold opening night to one of my collectors (one being the painting I almost didn’t bring), and the third painting sold a week or so later to collectors that decided not to hang it, but to keep it on their dresser and pick it up daily to intimately look at it every morning. That is an option that had never been available with my larger paintings.
As luck would have it, the collectors who bought the first two paintings approached me later that summer and said if I ever painted a large-scale nature scene, they would be interested in it. I mentioned that I was very interested in painting nature large scale, and that it might be nice to do something more meaningful and closer to home for them. The loved the idea. They had invited us to their NH home long before I had even attempted to do a nature scene, and now we had a great reason for a visit!
The resulting paintings are a year and half of work. During this process they have been worked on in Florida, Binghamton and even in The Hamptons while staying with the Meisels during the summer. There was a bit of a learning curve and I pre-mixed MANY colors before I started each painting. The under paintings were difficult. The smaller rock painting made me tired and mentally exhausted. I was a bear to be around, just ask my wife! The larger painting took about 6 months to cover with an under painting and it was not but a few months ago I wondered if I bit off more than I could chew. However, as I mentioned, there was a learning curve involved. The process of painting the nature scenes versus the urban landscapes I typically paint was more unique than I had at first anticipated, and took longer than I had at originally calculated, but rewarding and almost done!
The smaller close up stream with round rocks is titled Infinity. The photo reference was taken on the first morning just across their house as we were getting the lay of the land. It was beautiful light and we were taking a peek before breakfast. I am glad I brought my camera. Rule number one- ALWAYS take the camera! This painting is about light, motion, reflection and the translucency of water. The resulting light and motion of the water makes an infinity sign. This symbolizes the fact that death is an illusion in so much as life is as well. These cycles go on forever and ever.
The large nature painting titled The Return was named for my journey. The pool of water in the foreground is constantly being fed by a stream from above, and the eddies are a result of this stream entering and leaving and swirling in the “edges” of the rocks. What you, the viewer, cannot see, but I and the collectors know, is that on the other side of this pool looking forward, is a gentle drop that goes down for quite a ways. We walked up to this scene and turned back to take the photo. This area levels off for a bit, hence the pool and eddy. The water is in constant flow, but always returns. As I looked back, I immediately knew that this would be the painting. The White Mountains in the distance are close to eye level from our vantage point. For me it symbolizes the majesty of the climb. The beauty through the sufferings of life. Nature never complains. Nor does it judge anything good or bad. It exists - not for anyone or anything - It just is. In nature the lines between life and death are blurred and cannot exist without each other. These paintings have been some of the hardest works I have ever done. As I previously mentioned I had wondered if I bit off more than I could chew. There was a sense of desperation that would permeate throughout the process. I was being paid monthly. There was no going back. There was only choice: Keep moving forward. The complexity to the layers of The Return are more intricate than any other painting I have ever done. There were days I would enter the studio and sit in silence and wonder how I would do it. Then the voice would say, “Stop thinking and just start.” I inevitably would just start making marks and boy these marks were beautiful. They are some of the most beautiful marks I have ever painted. Some are still visible. You the viewer can decide which ones they are. I have never been more satisfied with a painting in my career as I am with The Return. It is my “masterpeace.”
Not that it matters now, but at this point in my life I have an answer to my Mother’s question, the question she asked which I could not answer, which led to our quarrel. I found her in the BU Nature Preserve. I found him in the White Mountains. But, I also found “God” in the depths of my suffering, because I know now there will never be a time that I will ever forget again.