Tuesday, May 5, 2015

the language of riots (an open letter to wolf blitzer)

Dear Mr. Blitzer, and anyone else who cannot get their heads around what is going on in Baltimore,

Have you ever been mad? Really, really mad? Not just mad but enraged? So deliriously angry that you couldn't see straight? OK. You know how, when you got that mad, you may have done something or said something that later on could be construed as not in your own best interest? Now, multiply that times a thousand, now multiply that by a whole community, now multiply that by a several thousand communities, now multiply that by SEVERAL HUNDRED YEARS of anger and frustration without redress, and you might be getting close to comprehending what has lead to the "rioting" you saw in Baltimore. 

In a recent conversation with you, DeRay McKesson described police behavior in Black communities as terrorism, and you were shocked by that terminology. Can you imagine how, if the police were in your neighborhood, in front of your house, day after day, stopping and frisking you for doing nothing more than walking down the street, it would start to feel like terrorism? Can you imagine how, if you saw your friends get arrested for no reason*, roughed up, and even killed for no reason, or killed for reasons that are so flimsy** and appalling***, you would start to mistrust the police?

*Freddie Gray was arrested for no reason
**Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes
***Tamir Rice was holding a toy gun (and was 12 YEARS OLD)

Can you imagine then what happens when this has been going on for so long in your community that practically EVERYONE feels like they can't trust the police? What if no one outside of your 
community believes you when you describe what is happening? Where do you go for help? Who will address your grievances? Who will advocate for you? Who will represent you in the system of law, 
when it is the very system of law that is clamping down on you? The point is that No, you cannot imagine any of this, because you don't have to. But if you could, you might conclude that it's a pretty bleak and Orwellian scene. You might then consider tearing some shit up.

What you saw in Baltimore was not people breaking the law: what you saw was people utterly fed up by the law breaking THEM, and it will continue to happen until we as a Nation can address the historical and social conditions that have created the disparity between the way you see the world and the way DeRay McKesson does.

I hope that you can bolster both your historical knowledge and your personal imagination in order to grasp that this situation is not first OR foremost about people breaking windows and setting fires.

Sincerely,
Robin Danely, average citizen of little consequence

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

the power of a portrait

One of the most arresting paintings I saw at the National Portrait Gallery in London was this one:

  Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, by William Hoare, 1733

It's the first British portrait of a Black African and a Muslim, and his story is fascinating: he was the son of a wealthy and educated family of Imams in Senegal, and he was on a slave trading mission for his father, when he himself was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He was enslaved on a tobacco plantation in Maryland for a year until he was caught attempting an escape, and while in custody, attracted the attention of an English lawyer who was impressed by his literacy (in Arabic) and religious devotion. 

The lawyer pulled some strings to have him bought out of slavery, and arranged his travel to England where he worked as a translator for the British Museum and gained a reputation of distinction amongst London's elite -- which is where this portrait was painted. After only about a year, he returned to Senegal, where -- rather unfortunately -- he resumed his own slave-trading endeavors, this time for the Royal African Company in England.

Despite this apparent conflict of interest -- or maybe even because of it... it's complicated, OK? -- this portrait came to symbolize changing attitudes about slavery in Europe in the 18th century. He was painted in a classic style, beautifully and respectfully rendered, and, rather than as a servant or an auxiliary character in the scene, as an individual and an equal. 

The way people are portrayed, whether in the current moment, or through the lens of history, matters. These lives matter.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

portrait gallery

My folks came for a nice long visit over the Easter holiday, and to show them around and to celebrate Jason's birthday, we took a day trip to London -- where I selfishly promoted my own agenda of going to the National Portrait Gallery:




My dad (who is also an artist) and I were especially taken with the studies on display, where the ground of the canvas was exposed, and the garments only sketched in around the beautifully modeled head. It was such a marvelous trompe l'oeil, and made me see how truly bizarre it is to describe a three-dimensional image on a flat surface. 

I could have stayed there all day, marveling at the rich tones and impossible fabrics, and the fact that many of those subjects were gazing out at us from over three hundred years ago. Can you imagine? It's only paint, arranged on canvas, and yet the fact of that singular human is preserved through all that time, its skin still luminous, its presence still eerily close. 

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Thursday, March 5, 2015

one layer

I still don't quite know how to paint.

Most of the time I start with an underpainting, intending to just block in some simple values and shapes, but then I get carried away and immediately start fine-tuning. Then, when I go back in for a second layer, I realize I'm trying to imitate what I did in the first layer and it inevitably comes out forced and stiff.

A painter friend suggested that I just stop after the first layer, then: why fight it? Why finish it? 


So this piece I intentionally did in one sitting, aiming for broad strokes and minimal fussing. 

I especially like how that background turned out -- the creaminess of that color! 

Jason has been saying from the beginning that my studies are usually more interesting than my finished pieces, and I always thought he was just, you know, saying that, because they just looked half-baked to me. But I'm finally starting to see his point. 

The funny thing about confidence, I've realized, is that it doesn't arrive from somewhere else just in time for you to try something new and bold. It is borne out of risk and practice, and must be tended daily. 

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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

cart before the horse

Lately all the dreams I've been having take place in Japan, as though my brain is finally getting around to sorting it all out... Funny how there's a lag time.

Last summer I collected pottery shards from the Kamo River, intending to make little studies of each one, so in love with the bright blue and creamy white. 

I finally got around to it, but it was mainly because during the course of unpacking here in England, I found a frame I really needed to fill.



That's the truth of my motivation... I might not follow through on a meaningful and profound exploration of the allure of Kyoto and the pieces I couldn't take with me, but here is a bright pretty frame that needs something inside it right now. 


I am not a conceptual artist. Pretty comes first. 

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Monday, January 26, 2015

the only rule

I am suddenly the busiest I've ever been with portrait commissions, which is of course both exhilarating and terrifying. 

I feel like the girl in the story of Rumpelstiltskin, I explained to Jason: I have told people that I can spin straw into gold, and now I have to find a way to actually do that. 

So I distracted myself by doing a quick study of him, instead.



Infuriatingly, when I don't pressure myself to produce something amazing and perfect, I get the very quality of fresh brushwork and bold colors that I'm after when I want the thing to be amazing and perfect. 

Forget the straw, forget the gold; the only rule is work.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

the costs of complicity

Haven't been writing. It's all been building up inside.

I've been grieving so hard this mess in the States... the most recent murders of unarmed Black men and teenagers and boys, the white cops who killed them not indicted, the whole system so corrupt and racist and despicable. 

12 year-old Tamir Rice, shot dead. How can I honor his life? How can I fight against what led to his death? How can I even look at his sweet young face?

So I obsessively check Twitter, get in protracted fights with strangers over FB, draft insane letters to Obama and to Congress, and despair that anything I could do would mean anything. I try to work and it feels indulgent and pointless. I am spinning, spinning, trying to contain all of this conflict, desperate to render it, sort it out, amend the wrongdoing. I have to do paintings about guns, about sugar, about prisons, about lynchings, about most white people's complete fucking inability to comprehend the problem. 

This blog is an inconsequential as a hairpin. I haven't been writing because it feels indulgent and pointless. And then I am angry at myself for overthinking it and allowing myself to be paralyzed by guilt, and for mistakingly believing that I cannot grieve and take action at the same time.

Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Michael Brown, Vonderrit Myers, Dontre Hamilton, Cary Ball, Oscar Grant, and far too many others: I want to memorialize you, I want to paint your portraits. I want to celebrate your human existence. I want to join the chorus singing BLACK LIVES MATTER, until they do. 

"All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity."  -- bell hooks

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