Over the course of the past 30 years I have worked on a series of images that I now call “Illuminations of the Good Life”. Each image is based on a word that signifies a quality of human experience that is something good, or that I identify as good. The image seeks to illuminate how the good might look and be as it exists in the world.
I began making these not as a commercial endeavor and with no idea that these little images would come to dominate a large part of my career for over 30 years. Rather, they were a kind of reaction against the seriousness of art school and the fact that most artistic subject matter I saw in the art world in New York City where I lived had a negativity or darkness to it.
I had just finished graduate school at Bennington College in Vermont and my thesis show was comprised of huge welded steel and concrete sculptures. But once I moved to New York City I no longer had a big studio to work in, just an extra bedroom in my apartment. Also, I had no where to store nor move my huge sculptures so most of them were destroyed. Disheartened and fed up with art as a profession or academic practice, I purposely sought to return to the deep place in my heart where I had first felt the desire to make art when I was a child. Conveniently, I loved all things small back then and I made tiny books and paintings for my dolls and stuffed animals, loving precious little objects I could hold in my hands. So, with this same secret pleasure I felt as a child, I began to make these tiny paintings.
Because of their diminutive size as well as their figurative and slightly whimsical content I felt a great sense of rebellion painting these. In the early 1990s, the art world in New York City was very cool and intellectual. Conceptual art had replaced the angst-ridden drama of the Neo-Expressionist work of the late 1980s and it felt to me that it was taboo to make anything at all beautiful or without irony and some form of self-reflexive criticism of contemporary culture.
In addition to the work of Grandma Moses I had seen in Vermont, I was greatly influenced by historical art I saw in New York City, especially Persian miniatures. There was a big show at the Metropolitan Museum of a huge collection of these from Russia that made a big impression on me. Interestingly, many of the figures in these pieces depicted religious zealots and sometime during the course of the paintings’ existence another group of differing zealots had marked out the heads in the paintings of the zealots they disliked. Somehow this act gave me the idea of the paintings themselves having a kind of power as a talisman, wherein the depiction of a certain scene in miniature could cause a like effect in real life, much as the manipulation of a voodoo doll is thought to do.
This kind of thinking hearkened back to my Catholic childhood. Even though the Catholic Church doesn’t espouse idolatry of fetish objects, as a child I loved the little holy cards of saints that I would collect and line up beside my bed. Each saint had a particular department of affairs he or she oversaw– St. Christopher helped to find lost things, St. Francis looked after animals, St. Veronica inspired charity and kindness, and my personal favorite was St. Jude who could help with lost causes. In addition to the holy cards of these saints that I kept, I grew up in the west and would often visit Santa Fe, New Mexico and there saw many examples of retabloes, or small reliquary paintings often of saints or depicting scenes of human suffering in the hopes of inspiring the healing of such by focusing prayers on the art.
I was familiar also with Louise Hay and her popularization of the concept of affirming the good rather than focusing on the problem one wanted to heal and so I made a conscious choice to make each depiction only something that I actually wanted to exist in the world, or that I wanted in my life as a solution to whatever unhappiness or conflict I felt and not an amplification of the conflict itself.
I was influenced also by the artist Francesco Clemente who was making a series of self portraits posing himself within a scene such as a Hindu miniature painting. I similarly made most of the figures in my little paintings be self portraits, but then I added figures who would appear in my dreams as helpmates or other characters.
It is interesting to me that Clemente as a man could make this kind of work and show it as fine art to be taken seriously, but when I first showed my miniature paintings, often hanging many together in large groupings, the more serious-minded art critics thought I had sold-out or was making some kind of cutesy commercial work on par with Hallmark greeting cards. It was seen as overly feminine, or “happy art” as one critic called it . One of my dear artist friends used to tell me, “These little things are fine to do to make a buck, but don’t stop making real art, too.”
For many years I was conflicted about this, especially because my larger work was quite different, more abstract and more painterly than the folk art style of the miniatures. I even thought about using two different names for my work but never felt quite right about that either because to me it was all meaningful and all important in my artistic life.
Anyway, the “Illuminations” as I came to call the small devotional paintings became a successful cottage industry for me. I originally made them on little handmade clay tiles that I formed then painted each by hand. Of course this was too laborious for a business, so I came up with a plaque version that consisted of a fine print within a little copper frame that I made by hand. I sold literally tens of thousands of these at shops and galleries all across the country. At a store in Boulder, Colorado, Robert Redford made a purchase of only one thing– my little “Trust” plaque. If this is the only fifteen minutes of fame I ever have, I will be content, but there have been many more sales, too.
The work continued to have a very deep meaning to me beyond merely a way to make a living. I received many notes and cards from people all over the country telling me how much my work meant to them and I felt deeply humbled and grateful for these. Also, as if the talisman power of the images actually did work, I found that these images helped me to understand more clearly what my version of a good life entailed and what it looked like. This vision helped me to make the choices that made those visions into reality.
It seems that my work has been part of a larger cultural zeitgeist of using words and images to bring about positivity in the world. Or, once the work is in the world it has an influence on other’s work. I would like to point out that my words with images, or “Illuminations”, are very purposely nouns or things– qualities that exist almost like a tonic or medicine that we can use to heal or to be well. This is in contrast to verbs used as inspiration which give an order for someone to DO something, such as “live, love, laugh, dream”. I don’t want my work to be a command or an advertisement for anything. Rather, I want my work to simply shine a light on a quality that already exists in the world and to serve as a marker of remembrance that such a quality can be used as a creative tool to change. As such, I like to think of my work as a balm for people rather than another thing they need to work at or master like a sport or a job. These are meant to soothe and remind, not harangue.
Children’s Hospital Colorado commissioned me to make a larger series of these images on wood to use as door markers in their adolescent psychiatric ward as well as several larger paintings with these images and others I designed for the space. Kaiser Permanente Health commissioned some as well, and numerous private collectors have bought large groupings of these images.
In 2016, I returned to Vermont and my plaque business became somewhat stale for me, especially soldering the copper frames endlessly. I retired that version of this work and now make the plaques with high quality prints mounted on wood sourced from New England timber. This version is much more eco-friendly than the copper one. Also, I have made these into a deck of cards, greeting cards, prayer flags, and more products to come.
Amid all the design decisions and handmade production, I have not made as many new images as I would like. This year, I have started to add some new images to the series again and will continue to do so in the future. I am working to partner with a local Vermont manufacturer to take over the production of the plaques and to use the images from this series for some other products. Please find all available versions of this series for sale on my shop here.
What follows are some of the lovely testimonials I have received over the years, for which I am infinitely grateful.
“Hello, I purchased a small piece of art that you made, one entitled ‘Trust’, and wanted to share with you my reason for the purchase and why I was so touched by your work. I am Jewish and deeply spiritual. There is a beautiful little song by Rabbi Nachmon– a rabbi from the old world, a world that sprang from the mystical world of Hassidam– which goes something like: ‘All the world is just a narrow bridge, just a narrow bridge, just a narrow bridge, and above all, and above all, is not to fear, is not to fear at all, and above all is not to fear at all.’
These words and the melody that goes with have often been a powerful source of strength for me. It is a reminder that we all suffer and this crazy, wonderful world we live in is so precious, and so very fragile. Seeing your piece on trust gave me that same sense of vulnerability and strength that can only be wrought through a deep faith in what is beyond our seeing, and at times beyond our knowing. So this is all a long winded way of saying thank you– for your art work truly touched me & is something I will cherish.”
“I recently moved to Boulder and saw your art at the Artist’s Co-op there. I fell in love with your small copper-framed prints and purchased four of them to hang in my new home. I love them so much, and everyday they serve as reminders of things I hold dear to my heart. Thank you for making this work. I can’t wait to buy more of these beautiful pieces to add to my new collection.”
“Hello, I am writing to tell you how much I love a little piece of art you made. It is called “Grace” and was given to me by a friend because I was ill and in the hospital. I was pregnant and afraid I might lose my baby. I hung your art next to my bed and looked at it often. In time, I healed and gave birth to a healthy baby girl. We have decided to name her Grace inspired by your beautiful art.”
“Years ago I was given a small piece of art that you made. It says Serenity. I kept it hanging next to my front door for many years and every time I left or entered the house, it helped me to remember to be calm and serene. I recently moved to a smaller apartment and had to get rid of a lot of my larger art and possessions. But as soon as I hung your little serenity piece by my front door, I felt at home again and like everything will be okay here in the new place. I wanted you to know how much this art means to me.”