Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Found these adorning an older elementary school on the Lower East Side, just on the edge of Chinatown.

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Monday, March 23, 2009


There's been a lot of talk lately about disappearing car marques, including Pontiac, Saturn, and now Saab. If they are erased from the market it wouldn't be the first time a shakedown in the auto world has killed off venerable brands. Studebaker was one of the old manufacturing companies in the U.S., starting as a wagon maker in 1852. As World War II ended Studebaker seemed poised to be a leader in the auto sales race, preparing well in advance with new models and innovative designs. Indeed, one of their advertising slogans was "First by far with a post-war car." But the 1950s brought cut-throat competition in the industry as Ford and General Motors dominated sales. Numerous car companies failed during this period, including Nash, Hudson, Packard (which merged with Studebaker in 1954), and Crosley. Ironically, Studebaker was a victim of some of the same ills afflicting Detroit's "Big Three" today: high labor costs, high pension costs for retirees, quality control problems, and strong competition from other producers.

Studebaker Transtar pickup truck, V8 logo, rusting away in Vermont. Sennelier 9.5" x 4.5" landscape paper, 140 lb., watercolor, pen & ink.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

St. Patrick's Day

While walking home last night . . . the Empire State Building adorned in green lights for the occasion.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

"American Standard"

After considerable effort with the scanner and photoshop, I got this to a somewhat acceptable point vis-a-vis how closely it matches the painting itself. Although it's not usually a problem when working with darker, more vivid images, the scanner doesn't like the rough texture of the paper when there's little pigment. I kept getting tiny shadows on the paper - like the shadows of minuscule moon craters.

I realize this may not be the most picturesque subject. Nevertheless, it falls nicely into my "ordinary objects" theme and reflects a fascination with industrial design, whether we're observing toasters or urinals. And admit it: It is a rather iconic fixture in the design landscape. Scan search results from google or flickr and you'll be amazed at the number of urinal photos - and the myriad designs pictured - from all over the world.

Here I really wanted to present the urinal in an appealing fashion - clean, polished, standing like a trophy or an idol on an altar. No doubt one could derive numerous conclusions from a painting of a urinal, from the Freudian to the political. The title alone - "American Standard" - says a great deal, I think, beyond standing as a specific brand moniker. In the end, enjoying art is about drawing one's own conclusions, fitting an image into a personal paradigm of experiences and opinions.

(The boys were intrigued by this one as I worked on it last week and over the weekend. They raised their eyebrows and even giggled. That's no surprise since "bathroom humor" is a focal point for schoolboy humor. My wife actually liked it from the start. I teased the boys that I was going to scan it and have it printed on t-shirts for each of them. At first they reacted with, "You're kidding," but eventually concluded that a t-shirt with a urinal on the front might be sufficiently weird to be cool. Hmmmmm, it may happen.) 5" x 7", watercolor, pen & ink, Fabriano 140 lb. paper.

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In my previous (child-free) life I collected antiques and knick-knacks with a passion: art pottery, 19th-century pressed glass, world's fair memorabilia (1876, 1893, 1903, 1939), Cunard and White Star ocean liner items, late 19th and early 20th-century political memorabilia, sheet music, stereoscopes and cards, and hand-crank record players with 78 rpm disks. And that's really just the tip of the iceberg. My philosophy for purchasing items was always "Buy now, find a place for it later." Now much of that stuff sits in storage.

Among those boxes are several early mechanical record players, including a couple of really nice RCA Victor tabletop models that still produce beautiful sound. Indeed, I was always amazed at how good the sound could be in a machine using a needle that looked more like a nail than a "stylus" used on the few turntables still available. I may have had CD versions of Glenn Miller and the other "Big Band" classics that I favored, but preferred to play these gems in their original 78 rpm format. No batteries needed. No speakers, wires, or remote controls. With just a little elbow grease to crank them up (not too tightly or those old springs would pop!), one could add music to a picnic or other occasion in any setting.

I remember my first 78 was "TD's Boogie Woogie" by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. But I also had more serious fare, including Gershwin's "An American in Paris," in album format (when an album really was an album of several records). Although I may have initially worried about securing needles and other parts for misbehaving machines, I quickly discovered that there's a nice little cottage industry that specializes in cleaning and repairing Victrolas, including broken springs, the most common problem. (When my sons asked about this painting, I had a hard time explaining clearly what kind of contraption this might be. To them, record players are something of a puzzle. I'll have to pull a Victrola from storage and crank up the music!) 5" x 7", watercolor, brush & ink, pen & ink, on Fabriano 140 lb. paper.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I "inherited" a toaster similar to this when the estate items of a great uncle and aunt were parceled out to family members before sale of the house. The main thing I remember about this couple was their chihuahua, Ladybug, who spent most of her time in one lap or the other. (I also recall the perpetually plastic-covered furniture in their living room, a decorating touch doubtless inspired by the dog's presence.)

Ladybug was a friendly little dog, which proved a welcome contrast to the chihuahua - Princess - that belonged to the other dog-loving great aunt. Move a finger and Princess would emit a muffled growl. Move an arm or a leg and the growl would become louder and more menacing. Try to stand up and walk and Princess assaulted the offender with a cacophony of barking and growling, all emitted as she sat in my chain-smoking great aunt's lap. (Come to think of it, I believe all of my grandfather's younger sisters - two of them nurses! - smoked like chimneys at some point in their lives.) An evil little dog. This is an unusual admission on my part, because I tend to love all dogs and cats and believe that with patience (and lots of high-pitched baby talk), I can befriend any of them in Doctor Doolittle-esque fashion. Princess, however, seemed beyond salvation, the irredeemable dog sinner bound for doggy hell. She probably died with her face permanently frozen in a snarl. I remember our visits to Richmond involved lots of sitting and talking, with very little movement on our part, lest we invite the wrath of our aunt's lap demon.

But back to the toaster. I always liked the reflectiveness of the bright chrome and hated to see fingerprints on the surface. Still, I didn't enshrine it as a monument to Eisenhower-era toaster technology. I used that toaster regularly, despite the vagaries of its out-of-sync heating elements: One quickly learns which sides of the toast will blacken more readily. 9" x 12", watercolor, brush & ink, pen & ink, Fabriano 140 lb. paper.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Art Card - Frostie Root Beer

Just another "art card" exercise - a vintage "Frostie Root Beer" bottlecap. I'm going to lose my eyesight doing these. Also, some of the details are hard to render, even with the tiniest brushes (some of which seem to have too few bristles to hold water and pigment)! 2.5" x 3.5", watercolor, brush & ink, pen & ink, on Fabriano 140 lb. paper.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Washington Square Arch

Shots from Washington Square Arch yesterday . . .

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Snow . . . and a bit of history

Images of Madison Square Park (and the Flatiron Building) after yesterday's snow. The statue is Chester A. Arthur, who rose to the presidency in 1881 after the assassination of James A. Garfield by a disaffected - and deranged - office seeker. It's ironic that Arthur would have to support and preside over passage of the resulting Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. As the base of the statue points out, Arthur served in the most lucrative - and perhaps most corrupt - position available in the pre-Pendleton civil service system: collector of customs for the port of New York. Traditionally, collector of customs posts around the country were handed out to the most prominent of local party leaders as rewards for significant service. Although the federal government had established a schedule of regular fees to be paid at its customs houses, the collectors presided over a shadow system of bribes and kickbacks that offered the potential for great wealth in the larger port cities. Moreover, collectors usually controlled appointments for a small army of subordinate positions, from assistant collectors down to weighers and measurers who handled incoming goods. In performing this role, customs collectors thus reinforced party loyalty at the local level.

Always the pragmatic politician, Chester A. Arthur understood that the public outcry for civil service reform following Garfield's death could not be ignored. Sure, Garfield had enjoyed little time in office (two months) before being shot by Charles Guiteau in a Washington railroad station. Nevertheless, his death four months later sparked a national outcry, and, in all likelihood, reopened the emotional wounds inflicted by Abraham Lincoln's assassination just 16 years earlier. (Ironically, Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was with Garfield at the station when Guiteau shot the president.)

Mind you, this issue was hardly a new one and promised to be a key issue during the Garfield administration even without the assassination. Reform-minded politicians and critics of the highly politicized civil service system had advocated creation of a merit-based system for decades. Civil service appointments usually dominated presidents' first months in office, and often proved a vexing process. As an editor with the Papers of James K. Polk, I remember Polk's oft-stated complaints about the incessant parade of office seekers who appeared at the White House, hats in hands, letters of introduction at the ready, begging for consideration. Indeed, a majority of the correspondence to Polk during his fist several months in office was penned by desperate citizens soliciting positions at every level, from consulships to village postmasters.

Ok, this doesn't have much to do with snow in Madison Square Park, but the statue of Arthur reminded me of the Garfield assassination and the campaign for civil service reform!

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