ANATOMY OF A PAINTING

All painting is an accident, but it’s also not an accident, because one must select what part of the accident one chooses to preserve.
— Francis Bacon

"Persona"  Work in progress shot

Source Material for "Persona" (film still from "Double Indemnity" 1944)

Source material for "Persona"

Source Material for "Persona"

Source Material for "Persona" (Jean Harlow)

Source Material for "Persona"

Source Material for "Persona"

"Persona" (early version and revised) 22" x 28" Oil on canvas - This painting started in 2011 (Left) but was wrapped up and put in the closet for 4 years until I found and finished her for my Veiled Hearts series in 2016.

I started work on "Persona" in 2011, but she just felt unfinished and was never shown publicly. Instead, she was wrapped up and put in a closet for 5 years. When I found her again in early 2016 she was ready for a new pair of shoes. There was a lot of source material that went into this painting. Often times I'll use an old film still as a starting point. That photo will be the general scaffolding of a piece and then I start to gather specific source material for the different visual elements I want to add. One of the biggest challenges is to try an blend all the elements with into one integrated scene. This painting ended up being one of my favourites from the Veiled Hearts series. I think what made it special for me was how the veils made these two women look like giant chess figures.

In the first version, the city lights in the background window were brighter, more stylized and out of focus. I decided to paint over it with an elaborate city skyline, (see detail below). It ended up being an insane amount of fine detail work. I think I went through an entire 14 hour audiobook just painting the city lights in all those buildings. 

"Persona" -detail 

Kelly Grace posing for me at her studio.

Slow Burn, 24" x 30" (final) 

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"Resurrection" (first version) 

"Resurrection" (Final)

"Resurrection" (Final)

The painting "Resurrection" (above) started out with a photograph of a solitary figure in a field. For some reason I ended up with a truly tacky colour palette (top left, first version). I wanted a moody sky but it ended up looking like a greeting card. As I was painting it, I kept wondering, "Is this amazing or horrible?" Usually not a good sign. Sometimes after logging in a lot of hours on a painting that isn't working, it gets hard to be objective. When I feel this happening, I have to just stop and put it away. Sometimes for a few months or even years. Otherwise, as in the case of the tacky sunset above, the whole shebang turns into a demented Bob Ross moment. Finally, in total frustration, I showed it to a friend and she said, "That sky is way too fucking happy." Yup. I had no choice but to go back and rein in that crazy colour palette. After realizing that it should be a night scene, I had to set about putting a dark wash over all that finished grass, I decided to have her hands morph into foliage, growing inside the car and twisting around the handle. That, for me, made the image start to come alive. My friend Chris does CGI in films and he suggested I bring out the headlights of the car and that gave the piece exactly the kind of tension that I'd wanted in the first place. Sometimes it takes a village. Actually, I don't usually show my unfinished work unless I'm either completely confident or totally lost. 

SCENT OF THE MUSES

Throughout history artists know that they must incorporate a female principal into themselves to really see the universe as it is. The truly visionary perspective on the universe comes from a male incorporating the female perspective into himself.
— Camille Paglia

Sunburst And Delirium • 18" x 24" • Oil on canvas

Still Life - 2015 - 20" x 24"

Amy posing in my studio

To Quote The Killing Moon - 2013 - 16" x 20"

Maybe I'm The Afterglow - 16" x 20"

Guinevere Van Seenus

Lauren Bacall

Lady Lazarus - 2011 - 22" x 28"

EXODUS was a piece that came out of an improvisational photoshoot with my friend, artist Kelly Grace, at her studio in April 2014. I rented as many vintage dresses as we could carry. It was one of those paintings that should have taken me about three weeks, but instead it took three months because I made the mistake of thinking I had to paint shadows on the wall for each butterfly. It made sense visually at the time, but half-way through painting all those butterfly shadows, I realized I'd made a huge error in judgement. The whole thing became much too busy and ruined the soft glow of the spotlight on the wall behind her. I had already painted a fair number of butterfly shadows, so I had no choice but to repaint the wall behind her. I just about lost my mind. Blending a perfectly round soft hazy spotlight is challenging enough, but painting it AROUND a gazillion red butterflies was a bit of a nightmare. Cadmium red has a way of eventually bleeding through anything that gets painted over it, so I had no choice but to paint around the butterflies, unless I wanted to start over. A few times I really thought this girl was going to just roll over onto the graveyard pile, but she stuck it out. 

Kelly Grace

Exodus (detail)

Kelly Grace

Exodus (detail)

Kelly Grace

Exodus - 2014 - 24" x 30"

THREAD AND BONE (below) started out with a completely different character. But I felt there wasn't enough dissonance between her and the environment. I thought she should be more unvented and bottled up. In a setting that ferocious, she would most definitely be trying to hide her appetite for carnage. I also thought it would be interesting if somehow what she was wearing subtly echoed the bloody veins of the meat slabs behind her.

Thread And Bone (version 1)

Thread And Bone (final) 2012

Thread And Bone (In progress)

MIRROR (below) was from my 2011 series, Colossus. They paintings were based on the poetry of Sylvia Plath. This piece was inspired by the poem Mirror, as well as a story Plath told about the hurricanes she experienced when she lived with her grandmother on the coast of Maine. She described finding sharks washed up in the garden. I loved the implications of that metaphor. 

Grace Kelly

MIRROR - 2011 - 18" x 24" 

Here's another piece from that same shoot with Kelly Grace. It was a simple concept with all the detail of the image going into the lace stitching of her dress. There were a lot of butterflies in my work at that time. They usually pop up when I'm reflecting on themes of independence or freedom.  

Kelly in one of the vintage dresses I rented for the shoot. 

"Certain Sacrifice" - 2014 - 16" x 20"

FOR YOU, TO JUSTIFY MY LOVE

Many times I have been a victim of my own optimism.
— Elizabeth Gilbert

In December 2013 I received a Facebook message from a friend with a position at Hard Candy Fitness here in Toronto, a global luxury fitness brand in partnership with Madonna and New Evolution Ventures, asking if I would be interested in hanging my work at "Madonna’s gym." They'd recently opened clubs in Rome, Sydney, Mexico, Russia and Berlin, and this was their first, and only, North American location. 

I told my friend that I was completely tapped out of available work at the moment. Also, my gallery contract wouldn't allow me to show at a gym, so I had to pass. But before thanking him and signing off, I joked, "feel free to pass on my website to Miss Madonna."

He replied, “Who do you think chose your work?” 

"Um... What?" 

“Why do you think I’m reaching out to you?” he replied. Just like that. Like I was supposed to know he and Madonna were in cahoots, just plucking artists off the internet. 

“I presented her with 10 artists,” he continued, “and she chose your work.” 

The truly weird thing is, I don't think he would even have mentioned Madonna if I didn't make that lame joke about passing my website on to her. Talk about burying the lead. I shamelessly plied him for her exact words and I won't be so brazen to repeat them here, but let me assure you, it was enough to make me call my mother. 

He asked me to come to his office so we could talk about it. He told me that I was going to have to sign a non-disclosure agreement before we went any further. 

I was a little confused. What could she possibly have in mind that would necessitate a non-disclosure agreement? “Her people will draw up a press release,” he told me. A press release? This is when I started hearing the voice of Ricardo Montalban welcoming me to Fantasy Island and that Hawaiian music playing on a constant loop. Would I be involved in her next video? Is Jean Paul waiting to hear from me? Listen, I know that sounds ridiculous, but cut me some slack. At this point my heart was going into overload and had shrivelled up into a little gay raison. I hadn’t quite gotten used to the fact that Madonna had been surfing through my website. 

I was your typical garden variety 80's twink who loved Madonna, so being objective in this situation was just a little out of my range of mental powers.

He asked how much my paintings sold for. I told him honestly, without any embellishment. Then he said that she wanted me to do two new paintings for her ART FOR FREEDOM campaign. "It's an initiative for visual artists to submit work that expresses what freedom means to them." That's not exactly what I do, but he told me to just go to the Art For Fredome website and try to let it inspire some new work. So I did.

For the next two months I worked long, intense marathon sessions. I slaved some seriously long hours, 6 or 7 days a week on the first of two new paintings with the incentive that it would be judged by the object of my teenage worship. But you know, no pressure or anything. 

Yes, I visited the Art For Freedom website. Yes, I tried my best to let it inspire me. But what ended up happening was that I launched into one of the most ridiculously ambitious paintings I'd ever attempted. It was just too complicated and not from my gut. There was a baby wrapped in a black veil, held by a woman in a Martha Graham pose, standing in a dark cornfield with a human head growing out of the dirt. It was fucking crazy, even for me. I had to stop. I started another new and completely unrelated painting to clear my palette and untie the giant knot in my head. This painting became "The Wallflower Opus." Nothing to do with Madonna or Art For Freedom. Just one of my girls. But I think she accurately expresses my frame of mind at the time. (Below)

"THE WALLFLOWER OPUS" - 18" x 24" - oil on canvas 

Come February, I received an RSVP invitation to the big Hard Candy launch party where Madonna was scheduled to make an appearance and take part in an exercise class. I don't really enjoy crowds and this event sounded like it was going to be a zoo. Unfortunately, due to all the time my insane Martha Graham painting ate up, I didn't have any finished Art For Freedom inspired pieces to show her yet, so I didn’t RSVP. 

The day of the event, I got a message from my friend. 

“You’re coming tonight, right?” 

“No,” I replied, “It sounds like it's gong to be really crowded and I have nothing completed.”

“What?” He shouted, “Dude, her assistant just called me to confirm that her paintings will be there!”

“It hasn't been long enough!” I said, “I only have a bunch of works-in-progress. These are oil paintings remember, not sketches!”

“Well…” he replied, “She’s expecting to see something. You don’t have anything new?” 

I had nothing except the Wallflower Opus painting. It wasn't finished, and it was wet. I fumbled around in a panic. “I guess I have one," I said, squinting at the wet painting leaning against the wall, "but it’s not finished, and it’s still wet!”

“Bring it!” he said, “If she likes it she’s going to take it with her.”

It was 11 AM. He wanted the painting there by 5 PM because she would be coming at around 7. After I hung up the phone I ran around my apartment in a panic. I grabbed the wet painting and sat it in front of a portable heater. Then I ran downstairs to the teeny tiny parking lot behind my building to set up a small folding table. I had to spray paint the frame black to match the painting. It was sort of snowing, but whatever. Luckily, I had recently found a beautiful antique frame with just the right dimensions. It needed a little refurbishing, but no time for that now! I ended up spray-painting that frame black lacquer in a gentle snow fall. Then, trying to balance it by the wire on the back, so as not to get any paint on me or the stairwell, I slowly carried the wet frame up 4 flights (I live in a walk up) and set the whole mess in front of a heater, hoping it would at least dry to the touch by 4 pm. It did, kind of. I bubble wrapped it gingerly and cabbed it over to Hard Candy.

I walked through a gathering of fans and press waiting in the lobby. Once I was finally inside the empty gym, I carefully handed the painting to my friend who led me over to the area where she would be making her entrance. There's something strange about a red carpet and velvet rope through the middle of a workout facility. He disappeared with the painting and then came back with a few drink tickets.

“So I’ll be meeting her, right?” I asked.

“No, she’s not meeting anyone, not even me," he replied. "She’s just coming, doing press, joining the class, and going.” 

“What?" I said, "But I was summoned like a towel boy. She’s not even going to say hello to me?” 

“Sorry." 

Well that sucked out loud! “Someone should tell her to be careful with it,” I muttered, deflated, “it’s still wet.”

After all my talk about not wanting to be an old groupie, I ended up waiting there for 5 hours. I'd found some friends that happened to be there and I figured since I made it this far I should probably stick it out. I had to admit I was excited to see her close up. When she finally appeared, instead of walking the red carpet, she decided to trot like Rocky Balboa, with her entire head and body buried in a fur-lined parka. I saw a split second of the tip of her nose flash past me and run into the aerobics room. That’s it, I thought. I'm out of here. What a letdown. I got my coat and stepped out into the frosty night air, feeling uneasy.

Late that night I got a text from my friend. “Madonna flipped out over the painting. She loved it! She even carried it out of the building herself, and It’s going in her NY apartment.” 

My heart started pounding. Then 10 minutes went by and I realized he was finished messaging me. After the excitement of hearing that Madonna loved the painting, I started to think about what came next. We'd talked about how much my painting was worth way before I went to work. I waited for him to message me to come pick up a cheque. Radio silence.   

Finally I texted him, “This might sound like a dumb question, but is someone going to pay for it?” 

A lot of time went by before he answered. Finally he texted, “I made it clear that it was a gift.” 

My stomach did a full back dive into my groin. No press release. No nondisclosure agreement. No payment. So that was it. All done. I spent two months working day and night for what I thought would be some sort of once in a lifetime opportunity, only to get a glimpse of the tip of Madonna's nose.  Forget that this is my only income. Forget that two months of my life was just handed out as a parting-gift to a Forbes cover girl, and forget about the press release. The truth is, I would have been thrilled just to meet her and hear her say that she liked my work.  

It took me a few days to come out of the funk I was in. Once I did, I had no choice but to chalk this up to a learning experience. To this guy, saying “If she likes it she’ll take it with her,” was the same as saying, “Whatever you paint for her I will present as a gift.” But I didn't ask anyone to show my work to Madonna, or request that someone please leave one of my paintings somewhere she could see it. Sure, I got swept up in the excitement of the whole thing, and in the back of my head, maybe I thought if I asked the wrong pushy question it would all just go away. I texted him back, “This was definitely a miscommunication. I didn’t think I was working on a gift. But regardless, I appreciate you introducing Madonna to my work.” 

A few weeks later I posted a pic of the painting on Facebook with the caption, "This is the painting Madonna took home with her." That was my only recompense for the work.

The next day, the owner of the gym I go to, whom I've never met and have no connection to whatsoever, pulled me aside and asked if I'd met Madonna. Wow. That didn't take long to make the rounds. 

I actually have no way of knowing if Madonna even received my painting. If all this is true, did anyone tell her it was still wet? It may have gotten smeared or damaged in transit. I never did get a chance to varnish it. That painting probably has a very uneven finish. The antique frame was a little crooked, but hey, I had to be resourceful in a limited amount of time.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thrilled that she responded to my work and that she may have it hanging somewhere. The truth is I don't know exactly what happened to that painting. And if I'd known all that work was going to result in absolutely no compensation at all, I probably would have respectfully declined.

So, now when anyone asks me if Madonna bought one of my paintings, I just say, "As far as I know, it's in her NY apartment," and leave it at that.  

My wet painting sitting in Madonna's dressing room, an hour before her arrival.