Reflections on a “Thumb Print”

I was searching for a way to convey an illumination that I have had in the last few months. Regardless of the illusion that time is a reality and that our progress in general is linear, we are who we are, always and forever. I’m not sure I can visualize what I am trying to express here, but let me give it a shot. Earlier today I was helping a brilliant university student who may be  playing the venerable pipe organ in our church. This will be a new experience for him, and I sensed he needed some encouraging words. He already had revealed to me last week that he was aware of Bach’s influence on romantic composers, such as Chopin and Brahms.  So I suggested that in a pinch, “play Bach.”  It turned out that he only knew a fairly intricate organ piece, so I suggested some of the more simple piano or clavichord works that all piano students start with. His response was, “even though they are simple, they sound wonderful.”  I replied that it was because Bach’s compositions are substantial stuff, and that each composer has his own individual expression, just as each of us has a unique, unduplicated thumbprint. Just as Gertrude Stein said in a Dada moment, “a rose is a rose is a rose,” so Bach is always Bach!

Last week, this young organ student had played some chords from a composition by Chopin, written when the composer was very young, and he called them something like the “perfect chords.”  Right then I knew he was a “romantic,” and I’m looking forward to his playing. He had said to my wife, “it doesn’t matter what I play…the next thing will be better…I can only go up from here.”  What a sense of progressing, expressing growth and development!

And that led me to share something I became aware of last summer, working on new paintings in Maine. I was using spray paints and tape to mask lines and shapes, and adding stenciled letters. I completed one painting with letters and numbers, but one large painting seemed to convey  either beams of light or highways, so I wasn’t quite sure how to complete it. What kept coming to me was that it was about “roads,” and I thought of Robert Frost’s poem about the road not taken. As the autumnal foliage exploded and reached its peak, I was led to use a similar technique that actually utilized actual leaves and ferns, as I wrote about in a previous post. Finally, I figured out how to finish the painting, by adding “text” to the “roads.” which made me think of the super highways that are so prevalent today. I decided to add the names of places that had changed my life– then composers, then people. I had to do this with the painting flat across two sawhorses, so that the acrylic ink wouldn’t  drip. I added water with brush to the acrylic paint so that it would seem somehow “aged.” It resembled a roadmap of sorts, with the illuminated roads standing out against the dark, rather architectural ground. My wife Jill really liked this painting when she saw the work I had finished.

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I kept thinking that, although I had never painted anything quite like this, that it linked back to work I had done many years ago in Los Angeles. I had taken a 6 x 4 foot plywood panel, and used both solvent and water based commercial paints. The resulting abstract painting was large enough to use for a very low dining table, with long chaise lounge cushions on either side to sit on. I was really pleased with it, and it was exhibited two years later in the Fresno Museum show with other art faculty work. I remember going in and tapping the strip frame back on with my umbrella handle–one of the docents thought I was attacking the painting!  And I did figure out, at some point, what I had actually painted. When I painted it, I was living by myself in my first apartment on one of the busiest streets in L.A,, under the elevated crossing of  two major freeways and the landing path of the Santa Monica airport. The apartment vibrated, and the noise came through the walls except between around 2 and 4 a.m. There was a high white picket fence at the end of the parking lot, and a small lemon tree. Look at the painting and you will see that the fence is the black verticals…it is an abstraction of where I lived!

As we speak, I am getting ready to do a mural for a client that sees something Chinese or Japanese in a narrow 15 foot hallway. The research has already brought back the love I used to have for that kind of art. I even used examples for my private students yesterday to explain how to work with “water.” I am studying  the work of Jill’s great aunt Frances Wolfson, who painted in circumstances quite different from ours ( her husband Mitchell was mayor of Miami Beach–among other things) and was honored in China before she passed on. My client has an original print by Dali, which is part of her vision of what I am to do. An artist has to be incredibly versatile to survive!  My life is indeed a kaleidoscope of images and experiences! Tigers and bears, oh, my!  Apples and oranges, oh my! Put the pan on the stove, and let’s make stone soup!

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on a “Thumb Print””

  1. Peter, that is so cool. I am excited to read that you are busy and loving your visit back home. You make me happy when you expose such deep and emotional feelings for us to explore. I am amazed that you keep going on and on and on and on. Why can’t I open up and relate some of my inner child for all to see. You know and understand me like most people don’t. That’s why my fan mail will never stop. Keep going on and on and on and on. I need it and love you for it. Thanks to God for Peter Stilton and his wonderful family.

    1. Thanks, Jane…I was thinking of giving up blogging, but I will put the paddles back in the water after such accolades!

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