At the end of high school, facing real independence for the first time, I found myself perched on a divide between art and literature. An unexpected acceptance from Princeton – which did not offer a major in studio art in the late ‘60’s – tipped the balance. But Princeton was generous to an English major who also yearned to become an artist: University Scholar status (granted at the end of my sophomore year) provided me with the academic freedom both to shape my own major in English with a minor in classics, and at the same time to take or audit all available courses in drawing, painting, and ceramics. When I graduated in 1969, I left the University with two things I considered as useful to me as my degree: my first box of pastels, and what would prove to be a deeply influential lifelong connection with Toshiko Takaezu, my instructor in ceramics.
A Ford Foundation grant supported me during my first year and a half in the graduate program in English at the University of Chicago. But I lacked personal clarity; I had made no real commitments to the study of either literature or art; and I left the graduate program in 1971, putting the incomplete MA on hold in order to pursue other interests. While at the University of Chicago, I had been drawn to the work of Eugene Gendlin in experiential psychology, the research of Linda Olsen in the field of mind’s eye imagery, and Carl Roger’s theory of personality development. After two years of practical and theoretical training in Rogerian psychotherapy at the Chicago Counseling Center, I worked at the Center for five years as a psychotherapist, as a teacher in the Center’s practicum, and as an instructor in Gendlin’s Focusing procedure.
But incomplete business haunted me. While working at the Center, I re-entered the English Department of the University of Chicago on a part-time basis, and graduated in 1977. In 1979, after bringing my practice to a close, I moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where I entered the graduate program in painting on the strength of my portfolio. Graduate school became an arena in which I re-invented myself as an artist, again and again. "About once a month," as Roger Shimomura, my independent study advisor, dryly pointed out. By 1981, midway through the MFA, my work had begun to concern itself primarily with mark-making, color, imaginary space – all on the edge of abstraction. Reluctantly heeding Shimomura’s advice, I took a break from experimentation and returned to what I knew best: still life on an intimate scale in the European/ American tradition. A short nostalgic visit to familiar territory, I thought at the time, from which I would rebound with new energy and insight. But that step back proved to be my next step forward on an unbroken path that led me toward the work I do now. I became, almost against my will, a "rhyparographer" – a painter of common things.
I moved to Pennsylvania in 1983 and began to work full-time in my studio, where I pushed myself to learn hard lessons in patience and solitude. I found gallery representation first in Philadelphia (Rosenfeld: ’83 – ’84) and then in New York (Tatistcheff: ’84 – ’98). In 1989 I received a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant and spent the next two years preparing for a solo show curated by Judith Stein at the the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. My third solo [see McNall essay] show at the Tatistcheff Gallery opened in December of 1994, and traveled in 1995 to the University of Toledo, where I taught and lectured in the Art Department’s visiting artist program. In the spring of 1997, the Allentown Art Museum organized and hosted a small solo show of ten pastels. (Although I should perhaps add that a "small" show is a major step for me: because the dense surface texture I seek requires many layers of minute revision, ten pastels constitute roughly three years of almost full-time work at the easel.) In 1998, my 4th solo show in New York traveled to the Suzanne H. Arnold Gallery at Lebanon Valley College [see Mazow essay]. In November, 2001, my 5th solo show opened in New York at Forum Gallery, then, in 2002, traveled to the Marsh Art Gallery at the University of Richmond [see Loughery essay]. In 2006, my sixth solo in New York traveled from Forum Gallery to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma [see Kallenberger essay].In 2012, Little Rock's Arkansas Arts Center organized and hosted a solo show of my recent work, "Mind's Eye". I am currently represented by the Bernarducci-Meisel Gallery and working toward my 7th New York solo.
Although I have occasionally taught as an adjunct at Lebanon Valley College since 1984 and as a visiting lecturer in various art departments around the country, my studio work continues to absorb most of my time and energy.
I am always, on one level of awareness or another, looking for the next picture. I look for the image that will fascinate me throughout the months-long process of realizing it on paper; for the image that will take hold in memory, like a particularly vivid but not yet intelligible dream; for the image that will keep me on the edge of understanding, as if it were speaking earnestly to me about matters of life and death in a voice so low I have to listen hard for the words. Part of my search is active, painstaking, time-consuming. I do what I can. I construct, dismantle, and reconstruct. I look carefully at the objects I try to render, and then look again – urging myself past that contented partial knowledge I always want to think of as complete. I build on paper thick layers of pastel, the surface of which is more beautiful to me than I can account for, and then refine that surface, bit by bit. That is what I know how to do. But (and here’s the paradox): what I know how to do, even what I know how to do well, does not make good pictures. For the essential part of the search is indirect. It goes on – perhaps it is continually going on – beyond the purview of consciousness, outside the authority of my will, regardless of my best efforts. It is as if my chief task were nothing more than putting myself in the place where the next picture will find me – where it will, in a sense, get in my way.
The objects I use hint a little at narrative: these are things people have made, grown, gathered, named, stored, broken, discarded. And they hint a little at theater, just as the shelf suggests a platform, the frame a proscenium. But the objects and their relationships are not meant to tell an explicit story, or illustrate iconographically any kind of text, or point metaphorically all one way. Objects of thought, yes. They contain the potential for interpretation, but the potential is kept in reserve, to use or not to use. I am concerned primarily with the rightness and power of the whole image – the power it exerts even before it can be explicated, and after explication has failed to sum it up.
In 1989, I abandoned the tabletop and its implied domestic interior for a less easily definable architectural support – a broken wall, a ledge, a carefully piled heap of brick or stone suggesting at times a stage, an altar, a flight of stairs. The darkness surrounding the support also became ambiguous. Not noticeably or jarringly. Viewers continued to peer hard at the black and ask me only technical questions: "Is it pastel or paper?" Puzzled, I’ve often asked in response, "What does the black represent – if anything – to you?" Deep space, they always say, never a flat background. "It’s infinite," one student told me, gesturing with wide open arms. "It’s behind the frame, it goes on forever." "Is it night?" I ask. Not exactly, it’s too dark for night. "And where does the light come from?" One answer: it’s in the objects. Another answer: it comes from you. But usually the pictures themselves do not seem to raise those questions in the minds of most viewers. Nor in my mind. For me, the darkness – except for its formal properties – is all metaphor: it suggests the odds against which every human achievement can be seen as a victory; it stands for the dark night of the soul that spiritual illumination requires; it is everything hidden from us, before birth and after death; it is , as Robert Frost put it, "…the background in hugeness and confusion shading away from where we stand into black and utter chaos… we were born to it, born used to it, and have practical reasons for wanting it there."