Monday, January 23, 2012

Merlin Eayrs

Merlin Eayrs. Student of Architecture. Taken August 29, 2011

Why Portraits? 

If I pick up a pencil to draw in a serious way, I always want to draw faces. Everything else seems mute and powerless. Drawing well still seems just beyond reach, but photographic portraiture is within my scope. A successful portrait for me is one that conveys the same feeling as a good painting or drawing. Its not that I want the photo to look like a painting - that is backwards and can lead to gimmickry. What I want is the presence - the feeling or emotion that flows from a good portrait.

So far the best description I have found of this process comes from British artist Tom Phillips:
"Once I get to work on a canvas I find it a nerve racking endeavour. I fear to waste the sitter's time as I dither, frittering away the hours it seems in indecisive manoeuvres. It is immensely frustrating to work for session after session without seeming to make any progress, but somehow (and in the final analysis I do not know why or how) some presence seems to emerge, a statement real enough to argue with. Getting a likeness is not the problem: any professional should be able to achieve that in a couple of sittings. The problem seems to be in reconciling a set of possible likenesses into a unity that has the feel of the subject's actually being there. The great test, as HWK Callom says, is to turn the picture to the wall and see if it seems that someone has suddenly left the room. Once, so to speak, this lack of absence is caught, many problems fall away, new elements suggest themselves to occupy the space that reality has created: painting a person has turned into painting a picture."
Tom Phillips* - The Portrait Works
It is surprising how similar the process is with photography. There is a precarious attempt to do two things at once - engage the subject and capture that engagement.

Phillips says "getting a likeness is not the problem" and indeed, with photography the problem of getting a likeness is almost entirely absent. You never find that you have made the nose too large or the ears not quite right. But the ease with which technically accurate images emerge only sharpens the question of what makes a portrait. You know when you have one with a certainty that is as strong as your inability to express what it is. Perhaps this is closer to the truth, the portrait speaks for itself and you cannot speak for it. It has a voice of its own that has uttered "a statement real enough to argue with".

True it may take weeks after the shooting for the eidetic dust to settle. And our conviction may grow stronger or change with time, but that is the essence of the process. So far, this feeling of an image working as a portrait has been the strongest with Merlin Eayrs. It brought me a tremendous feeling of satisfaction when it was finished.

Here is an index of portraits.

* I found out about Tom Phillips through a book published by his daughter, Ruth Phillips. "Cherries from Chauvet's Orchard: a Memoir of Provence" tells about her life and marriage to another British painter, Julian Merrow-Smith. Julian's blog Postcard from Provence, which auctions a painting online every few days, is highly recommended, a brilliant idea, and often held up by me as "the clever use of technology to live the life you want." Oddly, I was led to Mr. Merrow-Smith by Vancouver-book-designer-who-fled-the-rain-for-the-South-of-France, Dean Allen, who's fitful web presence has faded but who's "About the Author" (the only reliable web page left) can still make me smile.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Nineteen

Claire Fontaine
Your sheets are very smooth,
I like to rub my pen across them ... do you feel the way i do?

Claire Fontaine, who are you?

Hawksley Workman, Claire Fontaine

It was the summer of 1999 when I abandoned my ascetic attitude toward journals and bought a tiny Claire Fontaine* notebook at Paper Ya on Granville Island. Thus ended - with breaks for travel - a six-year period of bibliopuritanism where I sought to avoid filling books with ephemera, photos, and other paste-ins. I was happy to be in the world again. The book was full in a few months. 

I began writing character descriptions from old photographs. I made a colour photocopy of a class photo from the 1940s, cut the individuals out of the group, and started :

Boy #1 Top row, far Left.
He had eyes like raisons. His father was a tailor for the theatre but the family was poor and so his clothing was made from audacious fabrics. He wore a crooked smile and stayed only a year. Later in life he would move constantly, staying no more than a year in any place. He would be happiest in transient, short-lived jobs. A cook in a logging camp. An attendant at elections. He became an expert in part-time labour: a master of impermanence. 
Boy #2 Top row, 2nd in.
He was inseparable from his family and his family held him fast. There was no need for discipline because he was incapable of acting outside of family character. 
Boy #8 (not shown)
He was the type of boy who could not be corrupted. The certainty of his character was balanced by his complete lack of ambition.

He was a young man who took up mountaineering to avoid the press of urban life. He believed that he saw in the passing faces of beautiful women a desire which he could not acknowledge. It was as if all of humanity were beggars and he was the only person left who had pockets full of coins. He may have thought that mountaineering was a virtuous life - free of the moral torment, which he, in his heart, knew to be result of his desperate imagination. He believed that if he could climb high enough he would be assumed into heaven. 
At an early age he had an experience with books that led him to believe that everything that could be expressed could be expressed with words.
... I am most happy when I work on the books.

Here is a list of the books.

* Claire Fontaine still make their own paper. But, despite the beauty of some of their books and Hawksley's lyric endoresments, the Claire Fontaine website is a visual atrocity and I can't, in good conscience, link to it without a disclaimer lest you think me mad. For example, Claire Fontaine also runs Rhodia (another notebook favourite). We all know writing is fashionable. But maybe not in this way:

Monday, January 9, 2012

Lawrence Kristmanson

Lawrence Kris Kristmanson by Tim McLaughlin

Lawrence (Kris) Kristmanson. Artist. Taken August 8, 2011

You never think of television as a hand-drawn medium. But as a young artist, one of Kris' jobs was doing pen and ink illustrations of Vancouver scenes to be used as CHAN TV interstitials. It was the era of the indian head test pattern, before the frenetic rotating logos, animations, and tickertape news feeds. In comparison to today's television, the local news at that time was more like a slideshow at a community hall. He once told me he was reprimanded for doing an illustration of Vancouver's east side. It was a "We can't put that on air. What the hell were you thinking?" kind of thing. No urban decay or dope fiends, mind you - just buildings and streets.

Throughout his life, Kris has tried his hand at almost every image making technique. Illustration, painting, prints, lithographs, watercolour ... he even has a small foundry set-up to do castings and he shares a credit for a medal design for the the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association. Kris taught for a number of years at the Alberta College of Art and Design where he inspired a generation of young artists. Visiting the Kristmanson house was like touring the back rooms of a museum. But it was a museum where a very curious person had gone through the deep storage and pulled everything out to see what could be found. Paintings and sketches by well-know BC artists would be leaning up against a complete set of Krazy Kat cartoons, next to a book press, next to an etching press, next to a stack of lithographic stones that he had found abandoned in an alley behind modernizing print-shops. It was a maker's house, a house of ideas. It was always a stimulating visit.