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Saturday, April 28, 2018

Encounter: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Crystal Bridges
As seen through Frederick Eversley's Big Red Lens

Remember those college textbooks you had to buy for English Lit 101?  They had titles like The Norton Anthology of American Literature.  In a small space, they packed a representative piece from each of the key figures in literature.  That's what the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is like—a little something from everyone.  Here you can find Thomas Sully, Edward Hopper, Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, Charles Wilson Peale, Andy Warhol, Thomas Moran, Dale Chihuly, Thomas Eakins, Benjamin West, Gilbert Stuart, Jean-Michel Basquiat...well, the list goes on.

Thomas Moran's "Valley of the Catawissa in Autumn"

Artist's palette portraits by Joseph Decker

George Segal

More George Segal
Not my favorite Wayne Thiebaud.  I prefer his cakes.
Thiebaud's "Supine Woman"

Frank Lloyd Wright's Bachman-Wilson house
Frank Benson's "Summer Day"

Norman Rockwell's 'Rosie the Riveter"

As part of our springtime migration back east, Trina and I stopped in Bentonville, Arkansas—home of Sam Walton and Walmart—to see Alice Walton's museum.  Nestled in a beautifully-landscaped Ozark hillside and built atop a creek, it's smaller than I thought it would be.  But strangely, it seems to expand as you spend more time in it.  We took a full day and a half to wander its galleries, enjoying the fact that the guards would let us get as close as we wanted to view the art.  When I mentioned to one of them that I, as a painter, like to get close, he said:  “Alice says you can't appreciate art from six feet away.  When one of us asked how close to let people get, she said, 'If they touch the painting, that's too close.'”

The paintings, sculptures and installations aren't necessarily the most famous works by the artists.  In most cases, they are lesser-known pieces.  This, however, allowed us to discover something new about artists we thought we knew well.  We particularly enjoyed an early painting (1928) from Edward Hopper called “Blackwell's Island.”  It's not a stunning piece, but for some reason, we found in it a lot to talk about.

Edward Hopper and Me

Besides the art, there are miles of woodland trails to walk.  Dogwoods, redbud trees and wildflowers were popping out everywhere.  We had two days of hard-blue skies and cool temperatures to enjoy them.  We agreed that springtime is the best time to visit for the trails—but the museum itself is good anytime.

Now we are on our way to Indiana for our Brown County painting retreat.

Crystal Bridges, not through the Big Red Lens
Wise words from Buckminster Fuller

Monday, April 23, 2018

Road Trip: Painting Retreat, Part 2 - Santa Fe, New Mexico

Our location for the Santa Fe portion of the retreat:  Casa Rosa, or the Pink House

After Ghost Ranch, we headed to Santa Fe for the second half of our painting retreat and settled into a spacious home just a short stroll from the galleries of Canyon Road.   Built in 1920, the "Pink House" is still owned by the family that inhabited it for many years.  Filled with antiques and fine art, and surrounded by apple trees in full blossom, it was an inspiration for many paintings during our time.

My setup for painting the Pink House

Spring Comes to the Pink House
(Purchased by the owner - thank you!)

Unlike Ghost Ranch, which provided us with three meals a day, in Santa Fe we were on our own.  Trina and I provided  a hearty breakfast each day; lunches were sandwiches or something quick to avoid interrupting the day; dinners were a communal affair with everyone pitching in as either chef, sous chef or dishwasher.  We certainly could have gone out for meals, but it was much more enjoyable--and less expensive--to dine in.




Ann, Mary, Bev
Our happy group

Randall Davey's House 9x12 Oil
by Michael Chesley Johnson.
I was channeling perhaps one of the Santa Fe "Cinco Pintores" for this one.

With galleries being so close, we made that our first order of business.  Having been to Santa Fe and Canyon Road many times, I gave guidance on my favorites.  Over the years, there has been a great deal of change among galleries; some closing, some moving, some opening for the first time.  One tendency I've noted is the gradual migration to more "decorative" art.  Although you can find fine representational here and there, it is in the minority.  Still, I always enjoy seeing what the artists have come up with.

Visiting the Master in his Studio
Albert Handell

We also paid my friend and master painter Albert Handell a visit while in town. Albert enjoys visitors in this studio.  These days, he is doing some teaching there, rather than being on the road constantly to teach.  It was a pleasure for us to see his new work and to hear his ideas for the future.  As a special treat, he pulled out some of his very, very early work from his youth.  His painting style certainly has changed, but even then, 60-some years ago, he was a master of his craft.  (Albert said, "I've never had another job.")

And of course, we painted.  As I mentioned earlier, our house was very paintable, so we spent some time painting views of it.  (There is something so lovely about adobe and the way sunlight makes it glow.)  On Saturday, which just happened to be Earth Day weekend, we visited the Audubon Center and the Randall Davey House.  That was a rather cool day and, in fact, we had snow flurries at breakfast time.   This  didn't  discourage the birders, who were there to celebrate Earth Day by viewing the songbirds that have recently returned; nor did it discourage the painters, and once the sun warmed up the day, it became very pleasant.

Now, Trina and I are spending a few days more in Santa Fe on our own before continuing our eastward trip.  Next stop:  Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, which is to be followed by a second painting retreat in Brown County, Indiana.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Road Trip: Painting Retreat, Part 1 - Ghost Ranch, New Mexico

Ghost Ranch and Chimney Rock

The wind follows me everywhere.  First in Ramah, then at Ghost Ranch.  Fifty, sixty, maybe seventy mile-an-hour gusts?  Whatever it was, it blew the roof off the historic Ghost House and filled the canyon with dust that laid down a fine layer of grit on painting and palette.

The Ghost House

View from the Ghost House

The Ghost House is the centerpiece of New Mexico's Ghost Ranch.  Home to the cow-rustling Archuleta brothers, relations went bad as they often do among cow-rustlers, ending in one brother killing the other.  Some of the locals, having endured much thievery by the deceased, saw fit to hang his corpse from the old cottonwood in the casita's dooryard.   Later, Carol Stanley's husband won the house and the adjoining acreage in a raffle, and she turned it into a dude ranch.  Tiring of all those dudes, Stanley sold the house to Nature writer Arthur Pack, who invited not just dudes but also writers and artists to visit.  (Georgia O'Keeffe never lived in the house, but in the one next door to it.)  Later, Pack transferred the ranch to the Presbyterian Church, which runs it today as a spiritual retreat and education center.  You can read the full history of Ghost Ranch here.

Our first stop on our annual eastward trip back to Campobello Island was Ghost Ranch to lead a painting retreat.  It's a beautiful place to stay and paint, wind notwithstanding.  (By the way, it wasn't just the wind but also smoke from the wildfire in the Zuni Mountains that followed us there.  I reported on the fire in my last post.)  We had some very productive painting sessions, got to tour Georgia O'Keeffe's Abiquiu home, and also painted at O'Keeffe's “The White Place”, also known as Plaza Blanca.  As I write, we have finished our days at Ghost Ranch and are now in Santa Fe for the second half of the retreat.

In this post, I share some photos from this part of the retreat.  I won't present any finished paintings here—the grit still needs to be picked out of the paint—but will do so in a future post.

Painting the dust-filled canyon

Pre-breakfast coffee and critiques

Skull on the Ghost House

Hunkered down out of the wind

The long view

Painting the view of O'Keeffe's Pedernal

Georgia once sat here for a photo

Afternoon painting of Kitchen Mesa

Evening hikes

Georgia's "White Place" - find the painter!

By the way, on the way from Ghost Ranch, I stopped in at the Plein Air Convention and Expo.  I didn't think I'd have time, but organizer and PleinAir magazine publisher Eric Rhoads extended the invitation to me, so I made time.  I'm glad I went, as I got to catch up with some good friends there.

Eric Rhoads and me

Now I'm in Santa Fe, hunkering down under another high-wind warning.  I'll have a report on Santa Fe once we're done here.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Mentoring: “Private Plein Air Painting Intensive Study” Program Report 3

Turnaround 9x12 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

What a week it was!  After our first day of very fine weather, the second day saw our town smothered by smoke from a prescribed burn 20 miles away.  We had quarter-mile visibility, if that.  By the time we got to painting, the smoke began to lift, but it still made for a hazy day with weak shadows.  Then a couple of days later, a wind storm blew through with 70 mile-an-hour gusts.  However, we found a side canyon where the wind couldn't touch us.  By lunchtime, though, the valley was blinded by airborne dust.  It was almost as bad as the smoke.  Then, during the night, the prescribed burn blew up into not one but two 1000-acre wildfires.  Fortunately, they lay to the northeast (and sent a vast plume of smoke 134 miles away to Los Alamos, the scene of another prescribed-fire-gone-bad back in 2000.)  Finally, our last day, the wind brought a gentle dusting of snow and temperatures nearly 40 degrees lower than what we'd seen earlier in the week.

Find the Painter!

Despite all the excitement, we had a wonderful week.  Jodi and I focused mostly on painting rocky cliffs, since that is what attracted her most, and also worked on her skills of simplifying complex shapes.  Jodi and her husband, Don, did not stay with us but took the tuition-only option, enjoying a stay in their RV with their two small dogs at the campground at El Morro National Monument.  (The full package, which includes lodging and meals, is $1400, the tuition-only option is $700. Full details at  Now that the week is done, Jodi and Don are off on a special painting project via RV, the details of which Jodi will announce in the future.

Jodi and  Don's RV -- plus the Razr for painting places seldom seen

Location shot for my painting at the top of the post

Jodi hard at work

Now that the final week for our season has ended, Trina and I are off on our journey east.  First stop:  A painting retreat Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and then Santa Fe, where I have been invited to be a guest of the Plein Air Convention and Expo.  Then, it's off to Indiana for a second painting retreat in Brown County, home of the late painter T.C. Steele.  And finally—Campobello Island, Canada!  Workshops in Downeast Maine very soon. Visit for details.

Window in the Rock 10x12 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Secret Cliff 12x9 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Morning Cliff Shadows 8x6 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Juniper Shadows 6x8 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson