With James Surls at the Amon Carter

With James Surls under Seven and Seven Flower, photo by Charmaine Locke

The Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth recently unveiled their newly designed interior and I went to check it out the day after their big grand re-opening.  It was Sunday (after 1st service) and their website said “Open today at 10 am!!!” So, I drove over to see the new interior design. It turns out that there were a few of us there early, but the website had not been updated overnight. So we hung out in the parking lot under the oak tree shade. 

At noon, as we were walking inside, I overheard a lady behind me speaking to one of the attendants and she said “… well, that’s James Surls”.  I looked at the guard who didn’t seem to register the name, and I turned to her and said “That’s James Surls?”  She smiled and said “Yes, and I’m Charmaine, his wife!”  James and Charmaine were checking out the placement and hanging of his newly installed piece Seven and Seven Flower for the museum.  It was pretty cool, the hanging of the piece had been supervised by one of James’ assistants, and we were seeing it together for the first time in-situ.

If you know Texas artists, you’ve seen dozens of James’s work in art museums and corporate collections.  But, this one is pretty special.  It’s massive and cool with wonderful wall shadows.   

As we were talking, James walked back over, and Charmaine introduced us.  I told him that his name had been on my resume for almost 15 years.  Back in 2005, James was juror of The Texas National at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacagdoches.  James selected my piece “St. Leon of the Steelworkers” for that show.  I’ve always been extremely pleased that he included this portrait of my grandfather.  I’ve always thought it gave me some Tex-Cred!

St. Leon of the Steelworkers
Oil on Canvas
30″ x 36″

I did not share with James and Charmaine my other James Surls moment.  A number of years ago, around the time the kids were in diapers (all grown now), I was at the Fair Park Flea Market in Dallas where Terri and I used to spend hours looking for unique treasures.  One month I spotted a small maquette obviously by Mr. Surls.  It was about 5-6 inches in diameter and maybe 6 inches high.  I very gently picked it up and marveled at this extremely cool work of art. The proprietor of the booth saw me, and smiled, and showed me a letter of authenticity, but if you know James’ work, it was obvious who made it.  The price was $500, which even though a great price, at the time it was about 100 times what I had to spend.  I looked for awhile, sat it down, looked for another long while, sighed, and walked off. 

It’s tough to love great art on a budget.

Encounter Gallery at Northwest Bible Church

Discussing the self-portrait “Man Born Blind” with Robert Virkus.

The Encounter Gallery is showing through December 2019, in the Christian Life Center at Northwest Bible Church in Dallas. We had a Sunday Morning opening a couple of weeks ago and lots of folks stopped by to look and chat between and after the services. I met Robert Virkus and we had an interesting conversation about the art work and some of our favorite artists. Above is the installation on the south wall.

The North Wall installation of the Encounter Gallery

The church is usually open during the day and they often have extended hours. But I recommend calling ahead to make sure the Christian Life Center is unlocked and available for viewing.

Northwest Bible Church
Christian Life Center
8505 Douglas Avenue
Dallas, TX 75225

David Park’s Best Year Ever

Four People Drinking a Toast, ca. 1937

I recently visited the Modern Museum of Fort Worth which is showing David Park’s work from the 1930’s through 1950’s. Since he’s known as a figurative painter, I was very interested in seeing more of his work.

Now for the full disclosure: I do not appreciate most of David Park’s abstracted figurative work, especially those he did in later life.  I’m a portrait and figural painter with a completely different aesthetic. It seems to me that abstract expressionism may be able to be applied successfully to the figure and portrait, but I don’t like how Mr. Park applied it.

However, there are some wonderful paintings here, and all the best are from 1937. This show is definitely worth the trip to Fort Worth.

In the first painting above, Four People Drinking a Toast, Park shows an enigmatic foursome crowded around a small table, tightly squeezed and cropped into the picture plane.  It’s easy to imagine the rest of the cramped apartment and speculate on the underlying intimacy between the four people.  There is so much mystery here. I wonder why the woman in yellow is holding the fancy vase, rather than another goblet of wine.  Is she showing off a new purchase?  Perhaps it’s a valued heirloom.  Maybe it adds some comic relief or just necessary to complete the complicated composition. I love it when artists show off and I think that’s a bit of what’s going on here. Regardless, the seriousness of the group and their intensely focused gazes make for a wonderful and contemplative piece. 

Dancing Couples, ca. 1937

At some point, hopefully, each of us will have a really great year. It will be a stretch of time when everything comes together, we’re at the top of our game, and our best work is done. Perhaps it will be the culmination of long years of study and practice. Then the fates coalesce for a short time. Once you live through a period like that and achieve success at that level, the later years may be hard to accept. Lightning in a bottle is hard to conjure up a second time.

This second work, Dancing Couples, portrays the figures tightly entwined.  Once again maximum use of the picture plane is made and the space is tight. 

Self-Portrait Painting His Wife, ca. 1937

This last painting also has a lot going on in a small space.  We see the loveliness captured in his wife’s evocative pose.  And on the inner canvas, we get a glimpse of where his work will take him a few years down the road.  It’s unfinished certainly, but it’s lacking in depth and emotion. Perhaps it’s foreshadowing something of the path he will take in the future.

I’m interested in art that portrays and speaks to the human condition. There is much in these 1937 paintings that make me think the artist and his models have a connection and an interest in each other. They know each other intensely and there are bonds between them that will last. The later work, although vigorous in its brushstroke and color, loses that connection between artist and subject, and therefore me.

Cerealism Collage

Ceralism collage

There’s something reassuring when working with scissors and glue. Not only familiar, but also easy and fun. For me, there are fewer pretentious thoughts to making great art and lots more smiling and fun. It never fails when we’ve set up an art-making night that everyone gets busy and I just stare at whatever materials we’ve collected and all my great ideas just fly away, It feels like the everyone else is moving on and doing their thing and I am completely out of ideas.

More ceralism.

Most of the materials we were using were from cereal boxes saved for this purpose over the last few months due to our recent collage experience with Michael Albert. The colors and font designs are fantastic and probably the results of millions of dollars of advertising campaigns. The cost is basically nothing, and it’s keeping some packaging from going straight to the dump. Ok, so it’s just a little bit of packaging that we’re temporarily keeping from the garbage, but it’s a good feeling to recycle even a little bit. It’s especially a good feeling to make something fun and use basically no money at all in it.

Lurking Desire

Here’s what I finally came up with. It’s a sort of psychological portrait of a small part of our marriage. It’s also using what was available and not being fussy about it. The pepperoni pizza bird on the left is me, the popcorn bird is she. It would have been more accurate if my bird had been made of fried chicken, but a suitable pic was not available. The popcorn bird is entirely accurate. My lovely wife loves popcorn. It’s the go-to snack while amazon prime binging.

Intense discussion

I love this picture. It’s a bit out of order. We almost always eat, and talk, and pray together before the art-making. The spot on the couch by Phil is occupied by Wendy who is right there skyped in on Melissa’s cell phone which was pretty cool. The conversation that I remember most about this evening is the idea that we have to keep taking risks and focusing on truly important things. Whether it’s with new art-making ideas, new relationships, or more time spent praying, reading, and applying scripture to our lives. Someone said that we need to rid ourselves of those time-consuming activities with which we are pre-occupied and move forward with the vital things. And stop worrying about whether or not we and they will be accepted.

Twisting Trees with Mac Browning

Terri, Norma, Sara, and Melissa twisting away.

At Art and Faith in July, Mac Browning showed us how to take a loop of wire and sculpt a twisted-wire tree. I’ve admired Mac’s beautiful trees many times and it was very interesting to get a feel for what goes into one of his creations by trying to make my own. Mac was thorough and patient and getting started was easy. However, the wire twisting itself was not easy. It takes a combination of strength and dexterity to get what you want. It always gives me a great appreciation for what another artist does when I try a new technique for the first time.

Tom, Melinda, Sara, Melissa, and Norma focusing on the work.

Sometimes making art requires intense thought. When I’m painting a portrait, I have to concentrate completely. If I zone out and begin thinking about something else, I make color, value, and composition choices that just don’t make sense and have to be re-worked and fixed and it wastes a ton of time. It’s happened many times. It’s nice to have something that is not quite like that. Maybe Mac has to concentrate and not lose focus to make his trees, but for me, it was nice to work on something and carry on a conversation at the same time.

Mac showing how it’s done. Sara and Melissa contemplate the next move.

Art & Faith is on the 2nd Saturday of the month. We eat, we pray, we make art.

Time and Place

I recently read Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry.  Jayber is a small town bachelor barber who attaches himself to the very small town of Port William. Here is one of the wonderful passages where Jayber philosophizes about time and place. He’s so eloquent and so country at the same time.  

” I have got to the age now where I can see how short a time we have to be here.  And when I think about it, it can seem strange beyond telling that this particular bunch of us should be here on this little patch of ground in this little patch of time, and I can think of the other times and places I might have lived, the other kinds of man I might have been.  But there is something else. There are moments when the heart is generous and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another and with the place and all the living things.”

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

The shortness of time resonates with me.  The closer we get to the end the more obvious it becomes that time was always short, it just becomes clearer. It is important to be reminded of that. We might as well number our days because they are truly numbered. 

It seems like such a random thing to have been born in Texas and to have lived in Texas almost all my life. Who knows if I’ll die in Texas or not? And almost all the people in my wonderful and wide community are here now in Texas.  That is so obvious and yet so strange.  It’s not so different from family, we don’t get to choose our community so much as our time and place choose them for us. Even if I reach out and connect with others across the world to be part of my virtual community, I can’t go back and hang out with Rembrandt. We’re bound to time and place. Wendell Berry’s writing is so much about the working out of time and place. Rereading that sounds so academic. But when actually reading his novels it’s something much different.  It’s layered and lush. The characters and the land are complex, exciting, joyful and of course occasionally tragic.  Mr. Berry makes the idea of staying put in one place seem like the only obvious and best choice.

We’ve been in our current home on this acre and a half for 25 years.  I feel a kindredship with Jayber Crow and all the Port William community because of my connectedness to this home and this small plot of land. Terri’s chickens and our fig trees make a tiny mini-farm, but it also adds to it’s meaning. Part of the key to our great community here with family, neighborhood, church and friends is because we have stayed. We have not left. It’s true that we did not have to leave but also we have chosen not to leave. Our community here has grown and I cherish it. Staying put paid off. 

The Art of Fig Preserves

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with gardening. I love it when other people do it, I hate to do it myself. The main reason is that I’m terrible at it and have never had much success. There is one exception to the rule and it’s the only time I have fun in the garden. And truth be told, it’s hard to call it gardening. About 10 years ago I planted a fig tree.  It struggled the first few years and the root system was shallow.  It actually fell over a couple of times.  I staked it, babied it, and lo and behold it survived.  A couple of years later I planted a second one. These two trees are now healthy, huge and doing great. Every year in early June we are greeted by thousands of tiny figs fruiting and we anticipate a bumper crop. In a small way it signals the onslaught of summer in North Texas.  It’s something wonderful to look forward to even while we’re dreading the upcoming heat.

Mom & Russ with Washed Figs

This was a great year and we’ve already collected over 50 pounds of figs.

Now, what do you do with so many figs? Well, one thing is that you give them away by letting family and friends come over to pick. The thing I like to do with mine is broil them with a little goat cheese on top of them. So, I freeze as many as I can, and unpack them little by little throughout the year.

                                                         The third thing I like to do with figs is to can fig preserves with my Mom. They are the perfect fruit for making preserves, and it’s a great treat to spread on some whole-wheat bread for breakfast throughout the year.

I grew up eating fig preserves that my mother made, and we occasionally plan a summer afternoon to get together and cook up and can some fig preserves. There are really only two ingredients for our fig preserves: figs and sugar. Lots of figs and as much sugar as necessary. No vanilla, or cloves, or ginger for us. Just figs and sugar.

Mom Cutting Stems

The first job is to pick the figs. This year Mom came over and picked about ten pounds, that’s actually a lot of work. Plus, Terri donated about 3 pounds to our effort that she had picked. (Mine all go in the freezer to make broiled figs & goat cheese breakfasts!).   Next, cut off all the stems, and then wash the figs.

Figs and Sugar in the Pot

The real art is in the amount of sugar to add to the figs. They are naturally very sweet, so they don’t need as much sugar as when making preserves with tart fruit like blackberries, or even peaches. We added about half as much sugar as figs. For every 4 cups of figs added to the pot cover with 2 cups of sugar.

Russ Pouring Preserves

Put the pots of figs and sugar on a low flame. As the sugar heats up it turns into syrup and begins to cook the figs.

Let them simmer on a very low boil for about an hour, stirring every 5 minutes or so. Then the figs will have all turned a gorgeous amber brown. Boil the jars and lids. Retrieve them from the boiling water carefully with some tongs. It’s very handy to have a Pyrex 2-cup measuring cup to dip into the hot fig preserves and pour into the hot jars.

 Carefully clean off the jar tops, screw on the lids and caps tightly. From beginning to end it takes about 4 to 5 hours. That does not include the time it takes to pick the figs. When it’s all said and done, there is usually half a jar left over that isn’t worth putting a lid on, so we make some toast and happily finish them off as our reward. 

Bountiful Harvest!

Permission to Have Fun

Russ, Terri, and Michael Albert at Crystal Bridges

Terri and I hung out at the Crystal Bridges Art Studio in Northwest Arkansas a few weeks ago with Michael Albert (michaelalbert.com). Michael has been doing collage for a number of years and his works are both colorful and whimsical, and yet insightful and serious too. Michael has a number of favorite texts, narratives, speeches, scriptures, and such which have meant a lot to him over the years and he has committed them to collage, as well as some of them to memory. I thought that was pretty cool.

Terri working on her Lone Start flag.

So, while Terri got to work on her collage, I hung out with Michael and as usual asked a ton of questions. He’s on an “Art-demo and Workshop” Tour across dozens of U.S. cities. Most of his stops are at libraries where he leads folks, mostly kids, in activities using art, but also discussing and leading conversations about a number of those texts and stories that are so important to him. I asked him how he chose the libraries, and he said that he had written and published a book. He looked up which libraries carried his book, and just called them up and told them what he was doing. So, he has been driving from city to city for a number of weeks, maybe months now, visiting small towns and big, and getting to know people. Once again… very cool.

He calls his collage work “cerealism” because so much of it is found in the packaging for cereal boxes. So, it’s a lot of fun to see the images in his art, originally on cereal boxes I know well from my childhood. It’s sometimes a bit educational, if not sobering, to see how he uses the text in his work. Some of my favorites were Psalm 23, the preamble to the Constitution, and the Gettysburg address. There’s lots to choose from though, he’s a well-read guy.

Terri chose to make her version of our state flag. She had some symbolic fun and included some numbers in the work that are personally very important to her. I thought it turned out very nice.

Lone Star Flag
Paper and glue
12″ x 14″
by Terri Reed

I have a tradition of working on self-portraits whenever I’m at making-art demos, working in new media, and I don’t know what else to do. So, I sat down and did a 30 second self-portrait sketch in pencil, and then started cutting up cereal boxes. I decided to do a layering technique, whereas Michael and Terri both do more of a mosaic effect where they cut the shapes out to piece them together like a puzzle. I overlaid mine, one on top of another, and got more of a 3-D effect, which really worked for the self-portrait.

When we were finishing up, Terri asked me where the grey was in my beard. I really was taken aback. It turns out that my self-portrait is not a bad likeness, but it’s more life-like to my appearance 30-years ago, than it is now. While I was making the portrait, I was actually thinking of myself with dark brown hair. So, I blamed it on the cereal boxes and told her that silver was not really a cereal color.

There are a few important things to me about going to these art-making studio demos. I love to meet artists who are doing their creative thing and are willing to share their time and ideas with me. Michael was so generous, gave us some fantastic posters, and talked about his creative background and experience. It’s really nice to just listen to artists talk about what inspires them. I think occasionally it rubs off and something important and perhaps philosophical might find it’s way into my art or my creative habit.

But, it also allows (forces) me to try something new besides oil painting. The painting is so serious and these different media allow me to relax and just have fun. Try cutting up some cardboard packaging like a 6 year old and make something out of it that’s meaningful. It’s fun. These new media really stretch me and push me into something new. I’m terrible about making art in front of other people. I like to be alone, alone, alone. But, in the middle of the chaos at the Crystal Bridges Art Studio there’s nowhere to hide and you just have to go for it. Give yourself permission to have some fun and be silly.

Paper and glue
10″ x 8″
by Russ Reed

The Art of Chow-Chow

Terri Slicing Green Tomatoes

Chuck is my father-in-law and lives in Northwest Arkansas with his wife Marian. He’s an amazing cook and I’ve enjoyed countless fantastic meals made by him. One of my favorite accompaniments that he makes is chow-chow.

For folks unfamiliar with chow-chow, it’s the southern version of green tomato relish, and Chuck’s version is very southern and very spicy. We add it to all kinds of bean dishes, chili, and anything at all that needs a little spicing up.  We spent most of this last weekend together and Chuck was so gracious to share his chow-chow legacy with Terri and me. We really wanted to know how it was made. So, he sent the list of ingredients and we brought as much as we could find. These included 2 large heads of cabbage, 50 jalapeno peppers, 6 onions, 8 green tomatoes, turmeric (raw or dried), mustard seed, and more.

Chuck at the Food Processor

Chuck makes the most amazing chow-chow of all time. I’ve been eating it so long (since I was 15) that you can say I’ve grown up with it. He patiently led Terri through every detailed step while I took notes and grabbed some pictures of the process. Here are the basic steps to making the best chow-chow on earth.

Terri Slicing Jalapenos

The most important ingredients include cabbage, firm green tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, various other hot yellow & orange peppers (for color), bell peppers, onions, turmeric, mustard seeds, and red wine vinegar. The hardest thing may be to find fresh green tomatoes. We checked out a number of places and they were just not available, even in early July. We finally found about a dozen, mostly green tomatoes at a well-stocked off-the-road vegetable stand. All the ingredients are necessary, and you definitely cannot make chow-chow without green tomatoes.

Veggies are chopped

Starting with the cabbage, they cut and food-processed all the vegetables and poured into a large port. Terri cut the vegetables in smaller portions and handed off to Chuck who worked the food processor. Once all the vegetables were sliced & diced, some picking salt was poured over the top. The mixture was covered and left overnight.

Chuck and Marian Tasting the Chow-Chow

The next morning, the salted veggies were thoroughly washed and strained. Then the red wine vinegar, sugar, turmeric and mustard seed were combined together in another pot and brought to a boil. The chopped veggies were then combined with the vinegar and spices and brought to a boil. The empty pint jars and lids were boiled in another pot. to sterilize.

Filling up the Jars

And then the hot chow-chow was spooned into the hot jars, sealed and tightened. From start to finish, it was about 6 hours for 2 people. We did the veggies Friday evening, and added the vinegar and spices on Saturday morning. The total output was 28 pints.

Chuck Tightens the Seals

This was truly an amazing time when Chuck passed on a bit of his legacy and I got to record the whole thing. Very cool. Thanks Terri & Chuck!

Disciples Serve

Disciples Serve the Five Thousand
Oil on canvas
24″ x 18″

This is my latest work in the Encounter Gallery series entitled “Disciples Serve the Five Thousand”.  I was talking with my friend Takiyah about my narrative portraits and that I had started out painting almost exclusively my own family members, mostly because they were willing. I said that as I looked back over my paintings, it occurred to me that my family was awfully white. Takiyah laughed and said “well, my family is awfully black!”  I asked her if there was a gospel story that she most identified with and characterized her and her history.  She said that the one that most often came to mind was the feeding of the 5,000.  She told me about growing up fairly poor in the Los Angeles area, but definitely not realizing that they were poor.  She recounted a few of the numerous times that her family was unexpectedly confronted with the Lord’s abundance.  This idea of abundance is central to Takiyah’s experience of God in her life.  He has supplied her and her family’s needs abundantly and continually.  There were powerful stories from her childhood in which her family was blessed with abundance that could only have come from God.  As I listened to her stories, I thought of my own history.  My father had a good job, and worked steadily throughout my childhood.  I never really questioned or wondered where the groceries came from.  I realized early on that Dad was paid regularly, and the money went into the bank, and that was how we bought the groceries.  I knew then that God provides, even in this way.  But Mom and Dad were very frugal, and I never really got a sense of abundance or unexpectedness.  Our abundance was more a sense of “enough” and “steady” for which I’m very grateful. This very consistency was and is a gift from my Dad.  The groceries always got bought, so that meant that Dad was working, and God was providing both. 

But Takiyah’s experience was different and in its own way glorious.  God has continued to provide for her in an abundant and sometimes an unexpected way. 

While meditating on the story of the 5,000, I began to think about how much labor it would have taken to distribute a dinner of fish and bread to so many men, women and children.  Thousands of meals delivered across a hillside next to the lake would have taken so much effort.  I imagined that as Jesus multiplied the fish and bread, his disciples saw what was happening and quickly realized what it would take to serve this crowd.  They loaded up with plates of the newly created meals and went throughout the crowd, handing out delicious food to everyone who was there.  I set the scene on the northeast shore of White Rock Lake with the skyline of Dallas just barely visible in the distance.  I pictured the disciples as seasoned diner waiters and waitresses with arms full of plates of baked fish and rolls headed up the hill to the people.  This was a day of extraordinary and unexpected abundance, and Jesus’ many followers and disciples were there to serve.  It is the perfect story of Takiyah’s experience with the unexpected abundance from God.

“Disciples Serve the Five Thousand” is currently on display with the Encounter Gallery series at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Watson Hall (in Dallas) until August 22, 2019.