A Call to the Curious

If you're a traveler, artist, adventurer, or whomever post a comment, leave a story, give a piece of advice, and take a part. This blog is meant to be a free exchange, so help make it rich!

16 December 2010

A Question and Answer with Michael Liebhaber

1) Michael, you have a diverse background in art, including sculpture and painting. What made you decide to start travel painting and when?

Thanks, Tom. As you say, I have made many different kinds of art. I think the variety has been good for me. It has lead me to a deeper appreciation for all forms of art making and an understanding of an artist’s process as she or he made a piece. As for travel painting, I was forced into it by my circumstances. I grew up with western landscapes all around me and have done some plein air oil painting, but working with Celebrity Cruises is what pushed me 100 percent into watercolor travel painting. I have worked for Celebrity since mid 2007. As a crew member aboard a ship, I traveled to many places. Ship fire regulations prohibited me from using oil paints and solvents, so I took my trusty watercolor kit. It never let me down. Most of my paintings were done in ports during the brief times I was able to get off the ship.

2) I notice that you tend to work small, the focus lending it self towards convenience and capturing your experience quickly. What, for you, are the benefits of working in this manner?

I think there are two benefits from working small, one practical and the other artistic. I prefer to work large, but my circumstances made it impractical. It was much simpler to have an easily portable kit that did not weigh me down if I wanted to take a long walk in a port, yet was able to provide me the capability to sketch and paint whenever I wanted. My motto soon became: compact is convenient, convenience is good. Everything fit into one or two pockets in my cargo pants. The artistic benefit was that the small format freed my mind from the investment that I had in large-scale works. As a result, I painted often and fearlessly, which lead me to a consistent style and better painting (in my ever so humble opinion).

3) On your web page, www.michaels-travels.com, you have travel paintings from all over the world. Is there a specific trip or trips that stands out more than the others?

Every place I visited afforded me the opportunity to draw, and each has a story, whether I painted there or not. Most places are memorable because of the people I met or the friends I was with, but there are places that I appreciated solely as an artist. A very incomplete list of some of those places are Tallin, Estonia (my first sketch in my travels overseas); Arles, France (I drew the bridge that Van Gogh painted & stood where he would have stood to paint Café Terrace at Night, both awesome experiences); Saint Petersburg, Russia (with images of my pencil falling into a canal & the best vodka in the world), intricate, beautiful mosaics in the ruin of a Roman house in Southwestern Cyprus; the picturesque towns of Villefranche, Alesund, and Amsterdam; enigmatic Istanbul, where the cityscapes and markets are a feast for the senses; and finally, everywhere and everything in Florence.

Sailing Past Cape Decision Alaska

4) Tell us where you’re from and do you travel and paint locally?

I live in Scottsdale, Arizona, USA. I was born in Wisconsin, but my family moved west when I was little. I grew up in Tucson, which is my adopted hometown. Since then, I have lived in nine states and traveled to half the planet. I do not cruise on a regular basis now, so I travel around Arizona to paint. I also travel internationally when I am able.

5) If so, what are the major differences? Do you work in different mediums? Does your kit vary depending on where you're going?

I prefer oils, but with today’s travel hassles watercolors (or gouache) seem to make the most sense. I use an old folding watercolor kit with 10 dry colors. I take it everywhere, as I can easily mix a wide range of colors from a small set. Another benefit is that dry colors, as opposed to tubes, go through airport security around the world. Other things in my “kit” are a good sized brush, two pencils, a sharpener, and eraser, two pens, a small plastic container (for water), and a 5x7 inch watercolor pad. You can see my whole kit on my website. The only change I make is when I carry my backpack. Then I’ll put in an 8x10 inch watercolor block and carry a bottle of water. I only carry water if it’s a warm day or if I know I won’t be around a source of water. I’ve never failed to have a source of water, or other liquid suitable for painting.

6) What do you enjoy about travel painting?

As much as I love the desert southwest, I miss international travel painting. Mixing international travel and painting is fun, a natural high. My career with Celebrity taught me that travel painting is not just about the painting. I need the travel. In the past, I traveled to a location to paint. Now, I paint while I travel. Big difference for me. Everywhere is a “location”. I enjoy where-ever I am and I can paint there, too.
Travel painting also stretches my personal envelope. I do not consider myself adventurous or gregarious, but I like to going places and seeing things. Meeting people is a by-product of painting on location. Painting is a good, non-threatening way to meet people. People of all ages and occupations (e.g., locals, tourists, school children, waiters, police) have come up to me. One of my more memorable conversations was with a young French woman as I was drawing the Villefrance waterfront. She sat down and we chatted for about ten minutes, me in English, she in French, about "Je ne sais pas". What fun!



Images not listed directly under are from top to bottom; San Francisco from Bow of Ship, Drawing in Alesund, Norway and Honolulu

29 October 2010

Michael Liebhaber: A Brief Biography

Michael’s paintings and sculptures have been exhibited at the University of Arizona, Boehm Galley at Palomar College in San Marcos, CA, San Diego County Fair, Western Connecticut State University, Silo Gallery at Hunt Hill Farm Trust in New Milford, CT, Artists and Friends Invitational in Newtown, CT, and Prince Street Gallery in New York.
His work was featured in The Litchfield County Times Monthly in New Milford, CT and his haunting three-dimensional portrait of Osama bin Laden was used on the cover of The Telescope Weekly in San Marcos, CA to illustrate their review of the 2002 Student Show at Palomar College. His cut and welded steel sculpture, Ripple, won second place in abstract sculpture at the 2003 Exhibition of Art at the San Diego County Fair. Michael has also designed magazine and books covers, advertisements, brochures, and logos, and has illustrated all types of print media. He has designed and coded websites and has taught website design.
Michael grew up in the wild, wild, west of the USA. He spent most of his formative years in the desert around Tucson, Arizona walking with coyotes, chasing snakes, scorpions, and rabbits, crawling into abandoned mines looking for treasure, and hanging with the occasional old time cowboy. Really, he did. Those experiences gave him his love and inquisitiveness about nature, places, and people.
Since then he has lived in every part of the United States, traveled to many parts of the world, and painted in some interesting places. Despite his misspent youth, he has received many academic degrees (PhD in Child Language and MFA in Painting among others). He programmed computers (when computers were new), was a MacArthur Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, taught at various colleges, and spent a number of years researching and designing some pretty sophisticated computer information systems.
He has recently taken time to travel and focus on his artwork. He traveled the world with Celebrity Cruises as a manager of shipboard internet cafes. It was during that time that he began his Travel Watercolor Series.

Coming Soon!

In a few weeks we will be posting an interview of travel painter Michael Liebhaber conducted by fellow painter Tom Laukkanen. In the meantime you can learn more about Michael Liebhaber on his web page www.michaels-travels.com.

23 August 2010

A Question and Answer with Tom Laukkanen

The following is an interview between David Frank and Tom Laukkanen covering Tom's seven week solo trip to New Zealand January/February 2010. This was his first trip overseas.

Photo taken at Albert Park in Auckland, NZ

I want to start with something you said in your last interview. You said that, “There’s times when I’m caught up with work or other people and I lose sight of the art and it will call. It will call to me, ‘I need to paint.’” Before this trip was there a call, and if there was a call, what was it?

Before the trip the call had been there on a nightly basis beckoning me to not necessarily travel or go to New Zealand, or to paint, but to do something. It was not subtle. It was something inside that needed to be answered. I guess, it’s almost a question of your own happiness and your own sanity. What’s going to happen if you live in this world that is upon you by refusing the call? It’s something that can motivate and drive you and eventually you have to answer it, or you will go insane. What keeps your sanity through the whole thing is using it as motivation. Doing the 9 to 5 has value because it gets you to the point to take that trip or answer that call, whatever it may be. The mundane becomes a lot more gratifying when you know it’s going to something that is actually going to bring you happiness and take you into the unknown and unexplored.

How did you settle on New Zealand as your destination?

I don’t know why, but I had a fair amount of anxiety about traveling solo overseas.

I chose New Zealand for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s stunningly beautiful. Secondly, because of my lack of travel experience, I didn’t think that thrusting myself into a third world country was appropriate for me and I thought NZ would be a good place to start, safe yet still provide me with challenges I’m not used to. Lastly, I chose NZ because it so damn cold in Minnesota during the winter.

Your previous travel to this trip had been to different regions within the U.S. and Canada. Now you’ve gone to someplace completely foreign and outside this range. What were the major differences for you?

I found out quickly that the anxiety over traveling abroad was over nothing. There weren’t what I would call major differences between NZ and anywhere I’ve been. Culturally, they are pretty similar. The main difference for me was being alone for seven weeks with nobody to answer to except myself, it’s a really freeing experience.

Was there anything in New Zealand that surprised you, that you weren’t expecting, that left you baffled or stunned?

Honestly, the surprise of some people, from the local people, that someone was out there painting. They didn’t seem to have a lot of people that painted from life. I know it’s been done there, but they seemed pleasantly surprised. They’re interested in you, especially when they find out you’re foreign, and some would ask, “How come you’re here painting my country?” Of course, the landscape itself was very stunning.

The thing however that stunned me the most was the hospitality of all the people I stayed with, got rides from, and helped me along my way. They’re guidance and companionship is something that will live with me forever.

Photo of my friend Andrew and me

What gear did you bring? In terms of painting supplies what was your kit?

My usual case will carry an 18” x 24” canvas and I was intent on bringing it but at the last minute, a couple days before my trip, I decided to buy a smaller case. I was sure I couldn’t carry it on the plane, it’s made of metal and heavy, and I didn’t want to carry it the whole time. So I bought a lighter case that would still encompass a 16” x 20” and a 14” x 18” canvas.

I had my oils. I didn’t carry any turpentine, I bought that while I was in New Zealand. And I brought a small easel. I bought a camping cutting board and carved my palette from that, that way it fit in my case carrying my paints. Other than that, a few brushes and a roll of canvas.

How did your first painting come about?

I got my first painting done while I was in Rotorua.

Rotorua is a city?

Yeah, it’s a city in the center of the North Island with hot springs and geysers and smelled of sulfur. It was really kind of touristy and expensive. It was worth checking out, but I wouldn’t have felt bad to bypass it.

My first painting was at a place called Champagne Pool. There was a bunch of steam coming off this pool and some crazy colors, something I’ve never attempted to paint and I figured let's just try it. It was really...not my favorite place in the world, but it was an exciting part of the trip because I was getting my first painting done, in a new environment, doing it in a big crowd of people, which can get inside my head and make me nervous sometimes.

Were you happy with your first painting in Rotorua?

Technically, I wasn’t impressed with the painting, but doing it is a feeling I’ll remember. I’m happy with every painting. There’s a feeling of numbness and exhaustion, yet elation. I’m sure if you set off to run a marathon, you put a lot of preparation into it, similar to painting, there’s some preparation whether its scouting or getting your breathing right and the act of doing it. There’s an exhaustion and numbness at the same time. It’s not a precise feeling, just a good overall feeling.

After you finished?

Yeah, whether the painting's bad or good, you’re pleased overall and not with the painting specifically but with the process you’ve undertook. A painting is special not because the way it turned out, but because of the experience. The experience dictates the feeling much more than the technical success or failure of a painting.

Did you end up looking for certain things to paint? Did you develop any sort of pattern with your painting?

For the most part I look for things I enjoy. At the same time, in the back of my mind I think I have to capture this in the best way possible and it might not be what I’m comfortable with. I did plenty of what I’m comfortable with to no regret. Landscapes inspire me by the natural beauty without obstruction of man-made things. At the same time, there are different people, different things. In New Zealand there are boats everywhere, and I didn’t paint a single boat. I wish I would have. I’m constantly trying to push the envelope for what I’m comfortable with, and sometimes I do it and sometimes I don’t. If I just stay with what I’m comfortable with it starts to get boring and becomes less of a challenge. If I can let go of myself in situations where it’s crowded or someone is really annoying or obnoxious then I have control of myself. It’s something I work on wherever I go and doesn’t matter if I’m home or away. It’s taking small steps forward to allow yourself to change but not feeling a need to rush. I take it as I want, in whatever increments I want, without feeling badly about it or any pressure.

Do you have plans on a gallery to showcase your work on this trip or previous travels?

Yes, since 2004 I’ve been painting in the U.S. and I don’t know if it will include my experience in New Zealand, or if it will be from the era of experience traveling in the U.S. I plan on doing it outside of the industry, which will probably involve renting my own space and having my own show.

Are you interested in selling your work?

Not at the moment. Painting for me is just a way of documenting my experiences, which are much more rich and full than any one painting by itself. I feel it’s important for me to keep my work together to illustrate this bigger picture, one’s life experience.

Do you have short-term plans to show your work?

I’d like to have a show, but where? I’ve shown my work in coffeehouses and libraries and other venues that are unjuried and I appreciate that. The only problem is that the reason for one being there is to get coffee, or check out a book, or deposit money in a bank and the artwork there is secondary. For the time being I don’t know where this is going. I’m a novice at this, and my feelings are subject to change, but right now I feel like the industry is turning artists into craftspeople. I want to find a different venue that says the expression is free, a place where the art is there to impact the viewer not in the sense of its monetary value but in terms of shared experience and where art is the primary reason people are there. That’s why I’m here on this blog.

What is it you’re striving towards with your painting?

To be at one with myself, to be at one with the world, and to let go of fear and desire and really be a part of myself, society, the world, the universe. To be active and to be involved.

During one painting a lady came up to me, and I’m not having an easy time painting, between comments from people walking by and the amount of people, and she said, “You’re a painter.” I said, “Yeah, although I’m struggling at the moment.” And she replied, “That really isn’t the point, is it? You’re out here, aren’t you?” She really hit the nail on the head. It isn’t the point. As long as I know I’m a struggling painter, I can let go of myself. I can embrace the struggle. It’s universal.

What plans for future travel do you have, whether specific or not specific? What are your plans for travel painting?

Being away I met so many people from so many different places and I’m so fresh from being back from my trip, I want to go to everyplace on the planet at once. I know that’s not logical, but travel’s definitely in my future and it’s something I’ve just accepted as being a part of my life. I want to progress towards things that are more difficult than New Zealand, things that are less comfortable for me, and things that will push me in a direction headed towards the unknown where I’m forced to rely more on my instincts and less on external pressures.

As far as my painting goes, I’ll do it until I don’t enjoy it anymore.

06 April 2010

Painting war from the frontlines

Why do we need oil painters in a war zone?

I saw this article in BBC News, thought it might be of interest to travel painters.  Cheers! K

05 April 2010

A Question and Answer with Michael Kluckner

The following interview with Michael Kluckner focuses on a 10 week trip he and his wife made in late 2009 through Australia.

How did you decide the rou
te of your trip? And how did you settle on your mode of transportation, the camper van?

Most people who have the choice – especially the "grey nomads" – travel to the tropics and desert in the winter when it's coolest. We weren't able to leave Sydney until early September, the Australian Spring, and so went north into tropical Queensland as directly as we could, then to the desert, and spent the end of the trip moving through the south of the country which would supposedly be cooler but turned out to be the hottest of all.

The camper van, or travel trailer aka caravan, is probably the best way to do a road trip as motels and cafes are so scattered, the distances so huge. Arguably you could do okay with a car, a tent, a portable stove and an Esky (a cooler), reducing your fuel bill and from time to time sleeping in a proper bed in a rented cabin in a caravan park. There's not much of the pull-off-the-road type of camping in Australia – I don't know whether it's because it's dangerous or because the police will move you on. But the caravan parks are cheap and cheerful and give you a window into an aspect of Aussie life – the nomads on the one hand, the relatively poor long-term residents on the other.

In deciding what medium to use, how much was dictated by the environment, and how much was personal choice?

Part of the problem with a long road trip is that you can get so far behind on the pictures you're doing unless your pace of travel is solely dictated by artwork. That was the case here – we were on the road for ten weeks, and saw uncountable numbers of towns, landscapes, beaches and people.

Watercolour has always been to a me an illustration or documentary medium: i.e. I paint a picture that looks like a particular place, not copying every detail of course but putting in the elements that record it for me. On this trip I thought I would try a medium into which I could arrange elements that would give me more "generic" images – such as caravan park, beach, old buildings by the side of a road – ones that represent the spirit of the trip rather than the specifics of individual places.

The other matter was colour. The intensity of the tropical greens and blues in Queensland and the extraordinary desert colours in the Outback are very difficult to obtain in watercolour – my technique of layered washes has always worked best in paler landscapes further from the Equator. I hate an overworked watercolour – the kind where the paper begins to close up because too much pigment is pushed into it, because of working too dry.

So I took an Isabey brush and Chinese ink and painted on a natural-coloured smooth paper to capture the intensity of light and the way that shadowy forms merge into a single solid black,
like a woodcut with no modelling at all. All the harshness of the Australian landscape is in that tonal split from blazing sun to deep shade, from chiaro to scuoro. I would draw the core of the image in pencil and then when I began to paint it in ink I would alter or re-imagine the background and make it fit to the subject, with shadows highlighting sunlit (blank) shapes, creating a pattern of black and white. Those drawings are at www.michaelkluckner.com/troz.html.

A fellow artist in Australia, Roland Hemmert, www.rolandhemmert.com.au, travels with pastels
and gets very strong results. And of course there are the brave souls who take along oils and snazzy travel easels and paint outdoors – I tip my hat to them. I resolved to paint a few canvases in oils as soon as we ended the trip, while the colour memory was still fresh – these of course are not "travel art," but they complement the on-the-road work. www.michaelkluckner.com/artoz.html

What particular technical difficulties did you encounter (I'm particularly thinking here about your attempt at watercolors at Alice Springs)?

Heat was a problem everywhere. On the tropical coast humidity made it very difficult to find the energy to work. In the desert it was the dry air, of course, which has a particular impact on watercolours for me. I try to work on a slightly dampened surface but the hot dry air simply sucked the moisture out of the paper, making it very difficult to paint any washes at all without them drying with a "tide-line" at the edge. And I couldn't get back into any of the washes to model them as the paper was instantly dry as a bone.

People who know their Australian art know about Albert Namatjira, the aboriginal watercolourist active in the middle part of the last century. His desert landscapes are superb, quite strongly coloured, the paints almost tending to go opaque like gouache, and I totally admire them. There is a gallery of his and his followers' work in Alice Springs. I haven't been able to figure out how he painted as well as he did there, except he probably worked in the winter when the temperature is usually in the 20s – when it's easier to control the moisture on a piece of paper. It was rarely below about 39 Celsius (100+ Fahrenheit) in our time there.

Other than the heat (if that can be ig
nored), what difficulties did the Outback present?

You could tolerate the heat if you could find shade, but Australian trees typically cast a very open shade that only lowers the temperature a little. I didn't have the sort of portable umbrella gear that some really serious painters have. And the flies are brutal. I know that some people work with nets over their hats and faces, which is a little like painting hens through a chicken wire fence.

How many distinct environments
did you work in? Was there one you enjoyed more than the others?

The tropical coast and the desert were the two new ones for me. We also passed through a lot of classic Australian pastoral landscape – eucalypts dotted about on rolling paddocks, long views to blue hills – that I was very familiar with from having lived there for a few years. I had made a number of short painting trips during those years into the plains west of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, which worked very well for sketchbook watercolours like the ones I've usually done on trips elsewhere in the world.

In terms of work and what you produced, how do you compare this trip to previous ones? Do you, in fact, compare trips in this regard?

Some trips, such as the ones in Europe, are made for sketchbook watercolours and drawings, partly because it's so easy to wander off for an hour and find a place to sit and draw. Also, people in Europe are used to people sitting around and drawing, and are used to being looked at by strangers, whereas Australians (and many people elsewhere in the world) are very aware when they're being observed and may become either annoyingly curious or hostile.

Another difference between this trip and others was that I painted a few oils after I came back, not of "scenes" but rather of made-up, stylized landscapes, as mentioned above.

How did people receive your artwork as you were working and then afterward?

I did everything I could to be anonymous and invisible while on this trip and had little feedback while travelling. But the response after was very positive. For once, the artwork was on separate pieces of paper rather than in a sketchbook and I sold several of them almost immediately.

Do you have any plans for a show in the near future? Is there much difference in terms of exposure of your paintings and/or sketches between Australia and Canada?

I think the "show" of these works, as with the other trips, is on the web. If I get it together to have a proper gallery show in a couple of years I might put some of these images into it. To be honest, I've made so many changes in my life in recent years that it will take a while just to digest everything I did and saw in Australia.

The main difference in exhibiting paintings between the two countries is that I show at a commercial gallery in Vancouver, whereas in Australia I was putting pictures into salon shows and entering juried shows of a couple of the art societies in towns near where we lived.

An interesting "exhibition" of my travel paintings from the United Arab Emirates came out of the blue. The magazine RAK Today in Ras-al-Khaimah published an interview and several of my sketchbook images in its January 2010 issue. The editor had found my web page; the interview was by email and I sent high-res images of the watercolours and pencil drawings to the magazine by email. That article is on my site at www.michaelkluckner.com/trem.html.

Do you have any suggestions for those looking for more exposure for their artwork? And what advice can you give for a young travel painter starting out?

I may be mistaken about this, but it's probably easier to get work shown in Australia than in North America because there are so many open competitions there – which is not to say that showing in a salon is satisfactory, but it is difficult to get a reputable gallery to represent you, either in Australia or North America. There are too many artists, not enough buyers!!

Advice for travel painters: learn to write. If you can create an illustrated narrative you're on the way to storytelling, which I think is the essence of travel art. And the web is an ideal place to exhibit that kind of story, so get yourself a website and learn how to manage it or sign up on one of the free blogging sites and use it to post your work.

Do you have plans for future travel (understanding you've just moved halfway around the world, again!)?

As I write this at the end of March, 2010, we've been living out of suitcases for seven months. We have a household to re-establish, a studio to create and a lot of catch-up to do before I will even contemplate further travel! I guess it will be two years or more before I develop an itch that needs scratching. Maybe.

29 March 2010

Gearing up for the Middle East and Eurasia

Thanks for excusing my absence in the travel painting scene.  While I am changing things(life) up a bit, I am happy to report, that I soon will be back on the road again.  6-weeks, overland, travel painting from Georgia to Jordan.  Excited to share... Best wishes, Kathryn

28 March 2010

Updates Coming Soon

We interviewed Michael Kluckner recently about his last trip, a tour and farewell of Australia, which will be posted soon. An interview with Tom Laukkanen about his first trip abroad to New Zealand is in the works. Stay tuned.

01 January 2010

A Question and Answer with Gregg Fretheim

The following interview with Gregg Fretheim about his recent trip to Africa was taken in Bloomington, Minnesota on December 4, 2009.

What was the general outline of your trip?

Before I left I decided to go to South Africa where the old Zulu villages are in the east and the game reserves in that area have the black rhino. I planned to fly into Johannesburg and go to the Mkuze reserve and then stay on a private game reserve called Abu Madi. I knew from correspondence between the reserves that transportation was going to be tough so I knew getting any sort of rides was going to be rough but I just had to take it from there.

Did you give yourself a certain amount of time to acclimate yourself once you arrived?

I spent four days in Johannesburg to adjust myself and I didn’t want to be in any rush. I went to Swaziland and stayed overnight and then went down to Mkuze and stayed in a little town called Ubombo. It’s definitely a different world. It’s scrub brush and Tshaneni (Ghost mountain) rises in the distance at the end of the great rift valley. I didn’t know a lot before I left. But as you see more and more it’s like a book that opens up for you. My main stay was the animals and painting the animals because I haven’t done that.

Did you have any idea how you were going to paint the animals?

No. There are painting groups from England that offer trips but I didn’t want to go with a group. They’re very expensive as well. I wanted to maximize the time I had to paint these animals. I saw what some other people were doing and they were very brief sketches of the animals, very brief, so I thought I’m going to be lucky to get a chance to paint any of these animals, and how am I going to see them?

Rides with a professional into the bush can cost anywhere from 200 to 500 dollars a day. I couldn’t afford that so that might be a problem. I corresponded with Martha at Abu Madi and she said they could bring me to a watering hole and have a chance to see the animals in the morning and evening but I really had no idea how it was going to work at all. Everywhere else I tried was very expensive or they didn’t know what I wanted.

So the idea was to drop you off somewhere in the reserve and leave you and pick you back up later?

The idea was to bring me down to a watering hole in the morning, where there’s protection, and the animals come in and I can paint this. Martha told me when I was there in the morning at the watering hole behind protection I would have a chance to paint them. It worked out really well. My driver, Bongani, brought me to the watering hole in the morning and picked me up about five hours later. We became good friends and after a while was bringing me with him to help with his work, so I was able to go on the reserve almost everyday.

So what was the protection?

The sleeping area was inside heavily electrified wire. And when I got to the watering hole the protection area was a small box with a slit in it and no wire. They had three or four major watering holes, one had a fence, the others had these boxes with slits on the ground that you could crawl into.

So there was enough room in this box to setup your easel?

Yeah, at an angle. I had to look either one way or the other. They had a little chair in there but there wasn’t a whole heckuva lot of room. I had to position myself at one end and look out that way which obstructed much of the view so I had to watch for animals only from the angle I was looking at.

Did you find that worked for you?

Oh it did work. It was exhilarating. I’ve never painted with that level of exhilaration before. The anticipation and these animals....

How close was the box to the watering hole?

About 40 to 50 yards away. Some animals were very close, about 20 feet away. I had imagined what it would be like, but this was really different.

Can you describe a scene in front of one of these watering holes as you’re watching it from the box?

So you’re in there waiting, and you hear them coming. You hear the gravel on the road, or they’re breathing and you know something’s coming close and you get ready. Hopefully they will come in. A lot of the animals sensed something quickly. Zebras did - I had only 20 or 30 seconds to get a small sketch of a zebra. They lifted their heads, sensed something wasn’t quite right, and took off. Other animals, the impala came in large groups, would just hang out at the watering hole and that gave way to other animals feeling comfortable. Wildebeests, warthogs, monkeys, came in with the impala laying around and that was nice because it gave me the chance to do many small studies of different animals. And it was special when animals did come by. I spent days, literally days, in this box where nothing came by and I could only hear the animals around me.

And how would you describe the result?

The result is a combination of landscape painting and cave painting. It’s kind of a floating world to get the impact and image of these animals. It’s as fast as I’ve painted to get that image. They were always moving so it was quite a challenge. The exhilaration to being so close to these animals is intense, and some of them are absolutely humongous, and you feel so small in that box, and the reason for that box is protection.

Did you feel protected in that box?

Yeah, but my mind went to wander and knew the black rhino, as schizophrenic as it is, has been known to attack trains, so if it would sense something...it very well could be trouble. Once out on a road in the reserve a black rhino took a charge at our car, we revved our engine, it lifted its head and ran into the bush and hid. Over the next couple days we were hearing stories about a black rhino charging white cars. At the watering hole the rhinos stayed at a far distance. I was hoping to get one close to paint, the tracks showed it had been there during the night. But I was happy to get a sketch of one even at quite a distance. Also, the box had to be checked every morning for snakes, especially for mambas or a spitting cobra, so that was a concern.

So with this intense exhilaration did you feel, looking back at the work you produced, something different?

Yeah, for open air painting it goes to another level. There isn’t even the convenience of the slow sun that moves. This is rapid fire. It must almost feel like a combat situation, it’s like hunting these animals as they come within range to be able to paint them. And the sounds and size of these animals...I’ve seen them at the zoo...but when the driver says I’ll be back in five hours to pick you up, it’s like...well, I’m here with my paintbrush and my easel, if something were to happen, it could be trouble. Everything worked out very well. It was different from a lot of my work. Not having time really pushed me into other areas, all rules and ways I had done landscape before were completely thrown out. It was almost like survival trying to get the animal on the canvas.

I want to move on now to a different subject but one that you’ve touched on before. You’ve previously talked about your approach, or an approach, to painting when you’ve said to go beyond the technical. But for many people that seems like a contradiction. For example, if a painter heard, ‘It’s not about the technical’, they could rightfully say, ‘How can it not be about technique? It’s involved everywhere from mixing the paints to catching the light to the brush strokes. It all seems technical.’

It is for the student. When you start out you study the masters and you see the masters only in technical and not in cause and effect. When I often go to galleries and artist’s web sites, I see a claim that they are Impressionist, Realist, etc. So, can an artist today lay claim to a period of historical art?

I suppose they can but I think it’s more just feel good wishful thinking. I just don’t think that anyone today will be in the history books next to C. Monet. Impressionism, the period, already happened. When you’re a student you start out studying through historic periods like Impressionism, Realism, Pointillism, Cubism, etc. Then, as a painter now, you won’t be living the historic cause and effect of Impressionism but just looking at the technical. The student in their studio can study the period techniques for twenty or fifty years but some artists may feel that they want to break out of that technical bondage to find themselves. This is the hardest question the artist has to ask himself. How do you do this and am I brave enough to go against schools that have their own rules and the artists that created groups of past historic periods?. How does one get out of the technical bondage of the past?

I believe one way is doing the same thing the Impressionists did during their time. They broke away from thinking nature by getting out of the studio where each individual can record nature in their own interpretation, wow, did it work.

You can try starting with small student size canvasses and start going larger and larger. This will be hard to finish, but you won’t be thinking technical, because you won’t have time. You’ll go past the technical and start painting what you see. Some great things will start happening. Stick with it and don’t be afraid. You’ll start finding yourself.

A few days after hearing this I, that is David Frank, was reading from the diary of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. A passage there bore a keen resemblance to the topic above, and I post it as reminder that the issue at hand is as much an individual one as it is a generational one.

I said to Eichler (a young Polish painter):

“I am amazed that Polish painters do not try to exploit their trump card, which is their Polishness, in art. Are you going to imitate the West forever? Prostrate yourselves before painting, like the French? Paint with gravity? Paint on your knees in great deference, paint timidly? I acknowledge this type of painting, but it is not in our nature because our traditions are different. Poles have never been especially concerned with art. We were inclined to believe that the nose was not for the snuff box but the snuff box for the nose. We preferred the thought that ‘man is higher than what he produces.’ Stop being afraid of your own paintings, stop adoring art, treat it in a Polish manner, look down at it, wield it, and then the originality in you will be freed, new avenues will open before you and you will gain that which is the most valuable, the most fertile: your own reality.”

I could not convince Eichler, who had invested a great deal of energy and effort in creating a solid Europeanism for himself, and he merely looked at me in that by now familiar way, as if to say: how easy it is to talk! Painters and sculptors are crushed by the enormity of technical difficulties and so they concentrate on their struggle for the perfect line, color: they do not, generally speaking, desire to extricate themselves from their workshops. They underestimate the fact that a new way of seeing allows them to undo several knots that would otherwise not get untied. When I, therefore, demand of them that they be people who paint, they want only to be painters. I am confident, however, that today we have room in ourselves for thoughts about art which are more specifically ours and more creative.

Do not waste your precious time in pursuit of Europe. You will never catch up with her. Don’t try to become Polish Matisses, you will not spawn a Braque with your deficiencies. Strike, rather, at European art. Be those who unmask. Instead of pulling yourselves up to someone else’s maturity, try instead to reveal Europe’s immaturity. Try to organize your true feelings, so that they will gain an objective existence in the world. Find theories consistent with your practice. Create a criticism of art from your point of view. Create an image of the world, man, and culture which will be in harmony with you, because if you can paint this picture, it will not be difficult to paint others.1

1Gombrowicz, Witold. Diary Volume I. Trans. Lillian Vallee. Northwestern University Press, 1988.

Above is a photo of a friend helping hang paintings for Gregg Fretheim's last gallery show in 2002.

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