Stretchers or Strainers

 
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About ten years ago a friend told me during a phone conversation that I was using the term ‘stretcher’ incorrectly. We were talking about painting and I mentioned I was excited because I had four newly built stretchers — a stretcher being the wooden frame that canvas, or linen, or whatever, is stretched over. He said, “the proper term for what you built is a ‘strainer’. Technically stretchers have expandable corner joints and strainers corners are fixed.” Adjustable corners allow for the expansion and contraction of the canvas and the wood in humid, or less humid, environments. Sometimes hardware is built into each corner of the frame and at other times thin wood shims are inserted into the mitered corner joints to expand the frame. Regardless of the technique, they’re like unicorns because I’ve had a number of painting professors in my life and none of them ever used the word strainer. They all called them stretchers, even if what we built were technically strainers. I googled the term recently too and read a number of different articles about them — it all seemed a little hazy to me. Plus the word strainer is confusing anyway—strain what? So the take away for me is that even though there’s a difference, most people say stretchers, including most painters when referring to both types of frames. I did see an actual ‘stretcher’ in an art supply store once, on display like it was a trophy, or a rare artifact from Italy, mounted on a stick and basking in its own technical glory. I’ve never seen a painting in the real world that used expandable corner joints, in museum storage or a gallery, or even in any documentaries about painters.

Maybe if you’re a painter in a tropical climate like Cambodia during the rainy season and then have to ship your paintings to the high dry desert for an exhibition, you might detect a change in the surface tension of the canvas—maybe then a stretcher is a good idea. Maybe if you’re commissioned to make a painting of a significant historical event for the Smithsonian, like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the painting is immense and it needs to last forever—maybe then a stretcher is required. Maybe if you airbrush highly detailed western landscape imagery on linen and also forge your own hardware from scratch in your garage because the novelty is the most important thing to you—maybe then a stretcher seems necessary. Maybe if you’re a genius like Gerhard Richter, Susan Rothenberg, Georgia O’Keefe, Julian Schnabel, or a myriad of other amazing painters and you have assistants to build things, and your paintings are purchased by collectors for hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions, then maybe you use actual ‘stretchers’. That isn’t most painters though; it’s certainly not me. Stretchers with expandable joints are a technical fetish. I’m not that interested in how you hand forged the expansion hardware for your stretcher, or that you milled expandable dovetailed miter joints. That’s cool and everything; I don’t know how to hand forge anything and I’m far to impatient to mill dovetail joints. I’m more interested in the other side; the painted side.

So until the day that a museum curator, or an expert conservator, pulls me aside and tells me otherwise, every frame is a stretcher, even if the corners are overbuilt, overscrewed, overnailed and slathered with super glue.

© C. Davidson

Prairie Forward

 
Folded Canvas

Folded Canvas

Near Augusta, Montana : : 2017

Near Augusta, Montana : : 2017

Sage : : Badlands, South Dakota

Sage : : Badlands, South Dakota

I have a neatly folded pile of heavy cotton canvas and one day soon I plan to unfold it and attach it to a wall. I won’t need to build a frame because I’ll gesso it on the wall, paint it on the wall and display it in the same way. I’ll need to re-arrange my current studio space to accommodate it, or I may have to rent the corner of a warehouse somewhere else. Once it’s unfolded, it’ll be close to nine feet by thirty-six feet. I purchased the bulk canvas in 2008 and used half of it to assemble four stretched canvases. Each canvas was 60” x 60”. I have a lot of material left over and that’s what I’ll use to paint something big. I imagine it’ll incorporate some view of eastern Montana, one of the Badlands, or another enormous horizon from my youth—one that’s peppered with sagebrush, grazing cattle, or collapsing cutbanks. It’s usually silly though to predict what a painting will actually become, but I like thinking about it.

I imagine a space that I can walk into—that I can lose myself in, my spatial reference points completely in question because my eyes and my head can’t sync things up. It might shift what other people think they’re seeing too—a quiet suspension of disbelief. The space might feel like the countless road trips I’ve taken during the day and at night; in the hot dust of August and in the crisp nights of winter. At some point on every trip I pull the vehicle over to the side of the road, or into an adjacent field and stay awhile. If it’s dark, I stare up into the sky and lose myself in a blanket of stars. Sometimes in the daylight, I’ll open the tailgate and sit with my lunch, or dinner. If the cooler is still cold, I might have the food Jeenee prepared special along with my thermos of hot coffee. If I’m almost in the middle of nowhere, I’ll hear crickets, grasshoppers and meadowlarks surround me. It’s a full prairie immersion. It’s like swimming in it. If I’m lucky, once in awhile in open country near Circle, Ringling, or Augusta, the air will be still with the heavy smell of sage and sweet grass, and it will overtake me while I just drift there; just drifting.

© C. Davidson

Grinding the Stone

 

Sometimes a couple of us would be gathered near someone who was in the middle of working, or we might be on the roof outside the painting studio, or next to the hot kilns in the sculpture yard, or in someone’s living room. Inevitably, somebody in the group would blurt out, “alright, shit… I need to take off and go grind my stone.” We’d usually chuckle. We’d all heard it before, or had said that ourselves. “Poor bastard. Have fun with that. We told you the lithography class was going to be a pain in the ass.” The rest of us would resume our conversation knowing that we’d probably see them the next day and they would’ve survived just fine. But whenever I walked through the lithography lab and past Fran’s office, one of the printmaking professors, I’d look over at the presses and the work tables, and usually see someone scowling while they slowly ground their stone. You don’t usually see someone smiling while they’re doing that but there’s no shortcut. Eventually though, you’d see a print someone completed a month into the quarter and it would take your breath away, and if you were lucky, you’d see them smiling while they peeled the paper. To top it off, they’d get to reprint it and reprint it again, and repeat that same feeling over and over until they were satisfied.

My friend Ed made lithographic prints. He was a print maker and a ceramicist. Sometimes his prints seemed to defy the hard stone he was working on because his images were soft and intimate—other prints were hard just like his stone. I never learned lithography. I learned a little screen printing, a little intaglio and a lot of photography. Each medium has its own thankless tasks of drudgery, but all of the drudgery is the price you have to pay to break through—to print from stone, from aluminum, through a screen, or dragging it through a chemical bath. There’s always the ‘possibility’ and I know that’s why Ed kept grinding.

My friend Dave was mostly an intaglio print maker. He used found photographic material and created black and white photo-montages which he then exposed to light sensitive film, and then everything was exposed onto photo-sensitive aluminum plates and etched in an acid bath. He also drew directly into his metal plate to scratch-out, or add details as needed. Eventually, he could use that plate to make prints onto thick lucious paper. He had a background in painting too and his prints reflected that. They were beautiful and dense. Sometimes they hinted at politics, other times they were bleak domestic images filled with melancholy. You’d often find him sitting on a stool at one of the long tables in the central print lab workspace. He was usually humped over his plate, preparing it, or manipulating the kodalith films he used to expose his plates in the darkroom. His ear buds were usually in, probably listening to Lou Reed, Roxy Music or Bowie. He’d look up and give you a friendly nod if you were just passing through, or if he sensed you wanted to talk, he’d remove his buds and encourage you to sit.

One particular evening I was up in the painting studio on the second floor. I had it to myself. During the weeknights you’d often share the space with a couple of other folks, but after midnight, or on a Friday and Saturday night, you could count on being alone. Sometimes I’d be in the painting studio, or the photo lab, a friend would be in the printmaking studio, another might be in the sculpture studio and if it was really hopping, there might be a few folks in the ceramics studio. It felt like we owned the art building. The way students should feel.

I was sitting alone staring at a big, white canvas. I had just finished applying the last coat of gesso an hour earlier, and was waiting for it to dry. Dave walked in and greeted me. He went out of his way, up to the second floor, to check-in with me for the night. It was a little unusual for him to stop up. The printmaking studio and small photo lab where he spent most of his time were on the first floor, which is where he was headed. After smoking on the roof outside the studio windows, we came back in and sat and talked for awhile. While we sat there, he scanned a few of my paintings that were around and then settled on the large blank canvas I was about to work on. “I don’t know how you do it.” “Do what?” I said. “How you’re able to stare at that white surface and just start painting without a specific plan”. I asked him why. “Because I’m uncomfortable with the whole immediacy of it, the confrontation, that’s why I make prints. I have a plan and the process takes quite awhile before the image is printable so I can just ease into it.” I understood what he was saying and told him that I’m way too impatient. I’m most comfortable with something I can immediately respond to. That’s why I used latex paint along with oils. House paint allowed me to obliterate areas of paintings I didn’t like on the cheap. His way of working was far more methodical. That conversation was huge for me. I’d never heard anyone else reveal themselves about making art in that way, about our common fear, about how for both of us the emotional part of the process has the biggest impact on our approach.

© C. Davidson

Four Little Generosities

 

Until I launched this site, most of my finished work was rarely seen by someone other than myself. Occasionally a piece might hang in an exhibition, or exist on the social media, but that's the exception. So unless I'm at the opening reception of a show I'm rarely in, or people see my work during an occasional studio crawl, it's mostly unseen. Because it's mostly unseen, I don't really have a sense of how people will react. Once in a while though, I experience someone's response directly.

One—During my first year of undergraduate school I painted quite a bit at home, in a single wide trailer outside of my regular coursework, because pure studio courses weren’t offered until the second year. I was in a groove with my work and wanted to keep it going. I entered one of those pieces the following spring to the Art in the Park juried exhibition in my hometown. It was a mixed-media piece on paper—watercolor, India ink, colored pencil and graphite. I don't recall if I saw the show, or attended any events connected to it, but after it was over I think my parents collected the piece for me that had been accepted. My mom called to say that a neighbor who lived down the block from them had seen it in the exhibition and asked if it was for sale. She said that she stood looking at it for a long time, that it affected her and wanted to have it in her house. I hadn’t ever heard a response like that about my work. What really made a difference was that she was a neighbor I didn’t know—she wasn't an art school friend, or an art instructor, or a close friend of my parents, or my parents, but an average person who was generous enough to share her intimate reaction. My mom told her she’d ask me. When we spoke about it, I got the feeling that my folks liked it and wanted it, but she didn’t come right out and ask me. It’s been hanging on their living room wall ever since. One of my sisters owns it now and it still hangs in the same location. For a few years afterwards, if I was staying at my parents house, sometimes I’d see that neighbor drive down the street and we’d wave to each other.

Two—A female tenant who lived in the same duplex as my brother and sister-in-law walked into their apartment and saw the painting I’d given to them called Wanderlust. At some point during her visit, she said, "I want to make love to that painting." My brother indicated that she said it in a slightly sultry voice. Not because she was being ironic, but he said it’s because whenever she was feeling particularly flirtatious, her voice changed. It was shocking and flattering. I've never heard anyone say something that provocative about something I've made—that includes all the years I dated. It probably would have been exciting to see her make love to my painting, or horrifying, I suppose. How would that even work? I have no idea, but she obviously liked it. It seems to me her reaction is as good as it gets—maybe even better than being included in an exhibition somewhere, but trickier to express in a resume.

Three—During an ‘open studio crawl’ about five or six years ago, I heard someone enter my space during a relatively quiet time one Saturday afternoon. I was in the back working so I looked around the corner to greet whoever it was. A woman was standing alone in front of one of my larger paintings called Full of Birds. I didn’t say anything and after a bit she quietly left. Awhile later, I heard someone walk in and found the same woman standing in front of it again. This time she stayed longer, so I finally approached her, introduced myself as the artist and asked her if she had any questions. It appeared that her eyes were full of tears and she had a difficult time talking at first. I asked if she was alright, if she needed anything and she told me she was fine, that her son had been very sick and this painting somehow was bringing it all up and soothing her at the same time. We stood together for a bit in silence, we thanked each other, and then she walked away.

Four—A young couple was looking at my work during a different ‘open studio crawl’ and spent most of their time in front of my ink drawings. They’re 11” x 8.5” and float within 20” x 16” walnut frames. Eventually I asked them if they had any questions and they asked me how I made the photographs. They said that they enjoyed looking at photography and taking pictures themselves, and they couldn't figure out what kind these were, what kind of paper I used, and how they were printed. I was a bit confused at first because they aren't photographs and then I realized that they thought my drawings were photographs. "These are ink drawings—ball point pen drawings" I said. Then they seemed confused, so I pointed to all of the used Bic pens that I had on display. This random encounter led to a long conversation about perception and art.

© C. Davidson

 

 

 

 

My Head Almost Exploded at the Van Gogh Museum

 
 

Vincent Van Gogh created most of his work over a ten-year period—all of those amazing pieces, including his stylistic transitions, within a single decade. Not to mention that a huge hunk of his most famous works were created within his last year, like Starry Night. Let that sink in for a minute. I didn’t remember any of that from my art history classes in college, but I read it on a gallery didactic panel and in a gift shop book. Like millions of other people, I’ve been a fan of his for most of my life. My parents bought me a monograph of his work either for Christmas or my birthday, when I was in junior high school. I don’t remember if they did that because I had mentioned him, or if they wanted to introduce me to his work. Either way, the book inspired me, not because it mentioned the story of his messed-up ear, or because of his emotional struggles, but because he painted wheat and wheat fields, and wrote about wheat fields. I understood a little about wheat fields and I was beginning to understand painting.

Almost forty-five years later just a week before Christmas, Jeenee and I left for the Van Gogh Museum from our rented apartment in Amsterdam. It was a cool, gray, drizzling day and it only took a couple of stops on the metro and a brief walk to get there. We walked next to and over the canals, by dreamy Dutch architecture, thoughtful design in every dimension, bread and cheese bathed in the warm light of deli storefronts, and bicyclists everywhere. I’d imagined visiting Amsterdam and the Van Gogh Museum for a long time, but I didn’t imagine that it would feel this good.

It was off-season and the museum was still busy—not crowded, but busy. Sometimes we’d need to take our turn to stand in front of certain works, like the The Potato Eaters, or Sunflowers, or Wheat Field With Crows. I imagine it’s always bustling—it’s a destination—it’s Vincent Van Gogh. It’s hard to remember the full experience because I was in a bit of a haze, a blissful haze, but still hazy. There’s a lot to absorb, process, and make sense of. You can see the texture of his paint, you can tell which of his brush strokes are underneath and which are on top. You can almost picture him stroking his canvas, or stabbing at it, depending on how his day was going. I tried to imagine what he might have felt.

Seeing his work in person, along with other Impressionists whose paintings, drawings, and stories are also exhibited, placed all of it in a bigger social and historical context, like a giant, afternoon seminar. My art history knowledge is average at best, so being able to view his work in person, with so much information available in what feels like real time, explaining who he was, and what he was responding to in his life, was epic. We wandered through the museum for hours before finally needing to leave, find a place to eat a late lunch, grab our luggage, take a train to the airport, and catch a plane to Italy where we were meeting our daughter. In one of the final galleries, I came across a few of his paintings that felt similar and looked to be part of a series. All of them were landscapes and focused mostly on wheat fields. As I alternated between sitting on a gallery bench looking at them, and standing as close as I could to inspect their surfaces, I slowly realized that my most recent painting sitting on my easel back home, unfinished, is about the view of a wheat field through the moving curtains of a farmhouse window. I got goosebumps, I felt connected and then I saw Jeenee walk past Sunflowers hanging on a deep blue wall in slow motion.

© C. Davidson

 

The Same Hat

 
James Lloyd Huffman :: 1960’s

James Lloyd Huffman :: 1960’s

Plowing the fields of the homestead near Highwood

Plowing the fields of the homestead near Highwood

I’ve been working on a painting for over four years. Not daily, or even monthly; instead, I go through concentrated periods when I do and then I don’t. I have other paintings in progress, many I’ve finished and even a few have been exhibited during this time, but this one sits on a couple of five gallon buckets and leans against the wall. Mostly I try to ignore it, but it's five feet square so it's difficult to overlook. I currently call it Hat, Boat, Plow, because that’s what the images seem to be about, but usually it’s just the The Heaviest Painting I've Ever Done. It has so many layers that someday I’ll probably need to remove the canvas from the frame in order to transport it more easily. During these years, it’s been many different things with different intentions, and each time most of it gets painted out to white. I can’t ever figure out what it’s supposed to be and I’m never happy with what it is. Sometimes it’s an albatross. Sometimes it’s a source of anxiety. Sometimes it feels like an opportunity. Whatever my emotional response, I'm still confused about it.

Typically when I sit and stand in front of it, looking at it, over-analyzing it, bombarded by all of the chatter, I try not to think and just paint but it mostly turns out to be a dead end—thinking and painting never mix. Then one night I had an epiphany. Maybe I wasn't supposed to figure it out. Maybe it’s supposed to be an ongoing experiment where I can just try things without any expectations. I'm a little more comfortable with that idea lately, just keeping on with it and not sabotage it at every step. Of course the other possibility is that it will always be unresolved—that maybe it’s just a hot mess forever.

Last fall in the early morning hours, I was cleaning up when I glanced at the painting and out of the corner of my eye I noticed the wrapped package of old artwork nearby, leaning against my flat files. I had brought the work back the previous summer from Montana. It contained a few projects I did in high school. One had been hanging on my old bedroom wall and a few others were stored in my dad's studio. I'm pretty sure these are the very last artworks left at my childhood home, except for the few that my sister owns. After I saw the package, I unwrapped it and pulled everything out. I leaned one of the pieces up against the canvas and sat in front of it. It's a black ink drawing on a piece of 36" x 30" white illustration board. There’s a montage of a wheat field, a fence line, a windmill, my grandfather on his horse drawn plow and a large head and shoulders portrait of him wearing his gray, felt hat. The portrait was copied from a classic photograph someone took of him during the late sixties. The drawing was completed for a class assignment about storytelling. It was an homage to him with all of the images blending into one another like a kind of retromovie-poster. Then I looked at my unfinished painting which is big enough to fill your field of vision when you're close enough, and realized it's the hat—it's the same hat! It felt like the forty-year-old drawing could have been a study for the painting—both about farming and Montana. At that moment everything seemed to merge a little bit more.

© C. Davidson

 

Riding Shotgun

 

Riding Shotgun :: 2011

I was driving east somewhere in North Dakota the day after Christmas. It was dark and cold, the road was snow packed and I was in a near blizzard when my ex-sister-in-law called. I'd just finished an outburst of talking to myself. I said hello and asked if she would hold on for just a minute. I muted my phone, trembled a little and then gathered myself. I couldn't believe it was her of all people. I got back on and she asked me how I was, where I was and said that she'd been wanting to call me since my mothers funeral two months earlier. Her call felt a little like divine intervention. We caught up some, she listened to my grief, gave me sage advice, but mostly just listened which was exactly what I needed at that precise instant.

I was driving back from Montana after spending a couple of days during the holidays with a few members of my family while my wife and daughter were in Florida to be with her mom and brother. I drove to Missoula and purposely avoided my hometown, specifically my mom and dad's house. I knew it would feel like a crypt. It would be uncomfortable and still, like a funeral home filled with flowers that my mom wouldn't have liked. Maybe certain music playing that had no real connection to her. The music being more about the people who chose it than it being for my mom—like some Scottish dirge. She wasn't even Scottish. It might feel like that, so I drove to Missoula instead where most of my siblings lived. We went out to dinner and I visited a few nephews and nieces the following day before heading home. The drive was therapy. The drive is always therapy. Seeing family was good, but the drive is what began to heal me—it’s the mulling, the thinking through of things, the re-mulling, the talking out loud, the looking and the picture taking that centers me—breaking things down and lining them back up. Maybe a little like the Cat Stevens song On the Road to Find Out. After my my sister-in-law and I said goodbye, I drove out of the abrupt edge of the storm where the road was dry and I took the photograph Riding Shotgun, with my mom sitting next to me.

© C. Davidson

 

Interpreting Wink

 

Wink :: 1980-1981

When I think back, I realize that many of my paintings from college were figurative paintings—as in the human figure. I didn't think of myself as a figurative painter then, or do I now, but there were often figures in my work and sometimes they were the focus of the painting. Some of my strongest work was figurative—but I still don't think about them that way. I'm not particularly good at drawing the figure and very rareIy have that in mind. However, just a couple of years ago I did participate in a life drawing class—once a week in the evening for about eight weeks, with maybe 10-15 other folk—super casual. I think they took donations at the door to pay the facilitator and the model. I drew men and women on large pads of newsprint with charcoal, graphite and chalk. During the course of the two-hour session we'd get to draw ten to twelve poses, with a range of 1 to 30 minutes.  Over the course of the session, I came out with one or two drawings that were interesting. The rest were fire starter.

Whenever I've played Pictionary over the years and was required to draw a figure, human or animal, they were chaotic scribbles that took me forever. My teammates usually just stared at me in disbelief. "I'd need to be a clairvoyant to guess what you're drawing." On the other hand, the figures my father drew were crisp and clear. He always captured the action quickly and precisely. "It's a person raking the yard, um... it's a guy with an erection... it's a man watering the lawn!"

Wink was a painting I did in undergraduate school. Somehow it turned into a head-and-shoulders-type-portrait—it was stylized, simple and abstract. It wasn't a very good painting, but I treated the figure in a way I never had before, so I'd always held on to it for posterity. I used oil and latex on a piece of 36" x 30" masonite. I shipped it home from my parents' basement in Montana years ago. It had been in storage for at least twenty-five years. Once it arrived in Minneapolis, I unpacked it and leaned it against a wall in our living room. It remained there for a couple of weeks before my wife said anything. Eventually she asked me what the painting was about. A fair question. I was surprised by it, though. I wasn't surprised because she asked a question, but because of the question she asked. I assumed the image was so obvious that it would be hard to interpret it any other way. In fact that was the primary reason I disliked it. It felt limiting. When I told her what it was she said she still didn't really see it. Maybe. Kinda? I was surprised again because that probably meant most people didn't immediately read it that way. I was relieved too. It kind of changed everything. It reminded me to relax about what I think I'm painting and what others might think I'm painting because I can't really control it and the what doesn't really matter, just that I'm painting.

© C. Davidson

Hal Blew My Mind

 
Someone’s Always Leaving :: 1982-1983

Someone’s Always Leaving :: 1982-1983

Hal Schlotzhauer was one of my painting professors in undergraduate school. He was born In New York and arrived in Montana from the Bay Area where he grew up. He was handsome, tan, friendly and soft-spoken. I think he had been a surfer, too. His large paintings and drawings were aggressive and full of action. They were bright, complex, crowded and spacial. They were loaded and appeared completely abstract at first glance, but the longer and deeper you looked, the more figurative they became. He casually told me once that "there's no difference between abstraction and representation. It's only a matter of how the elements are assembled and how they relate to each other that shifts a piece one way or the other."

One Friday afternoon during Spring quarter, I met with him in the empty painting studio where I had set up a few canvasses. I sat on the base of a wooden easel leg and he sat next to me on a hard-backed chair. I don't remember exactly how long we sat there before either of us said anything, but It felt like at least five minutes. I began to get nervous and started to feel pretty certain that he must really hate them and was just searching for a gentle way to tell me. He finally said, "how's your love life?" I was taken back a bit and eventually responded with "what love life?" "That makes sense," he said. I felt totally exposed and confused. They weren't figurative, or sexual, and didn't feel erotic to me in any way. Those notions weren't what I thought I was thinking about while I was working on them, but once he said it and I tried to look through that lens, I think I kind of saw what he meant. It wasn't about literal figures, or symbols; it was about what he was feeling in front of them. Nothing more was said about my lack of a love life and we continued talking about other art-making things, as if nothing had shifted.

© C. Davidson