Artist Statement: When a Man’s House is Finished
I met James while sitting by the side of the road painting the old Bavon Post Office. Justin and I had been seeking a studio, and it so happened that James and his wife Virginia owned an 1800s farmhouse in nearby Onemo. Onemo, they say, was named when the residents were asking for just One Mo’ post
office. That’s in one of the lowest parts of Mathews county, where the bay breezes waft through old trees and the roads are impassable in a flood tide. The house was built in the vernacular architectural style with a T-shaped layout, a broad porch, and windows everywhere to draw a draft in the days before air conditioning. I hear the house was once the grandest in the area. These days, the porch is falling in, and the heart-wood siding is flaking ancient lead paint. We picked the left upstairs room, where there are tongue-and-groove floors, a fireplace, and crumbling plaster with remnants of wallpaper. Someone had scribbled illegible graphite notes onto the walls by the light switch and over the mantle. A ghost appeared in this room, says James.
Not long after Justin and I moved in, James showed me his prize photograph. Three women stand in front of the farmhouse. Two are holding cats and the third has a hand-written placard with the message: We are here in the past Come visit in your time machine. He had a whole album of black-and-white photographs set there,most taken by Virginia’s father Constantine Phines in the 1960s. I was fascinated by the stoic women and the thought of tracing their footsteps. James agreed to loan me the album. At the time, I was laboring over the grisaille underpainting of a multi-generational family portrait commissioned by my grandfather.
The controlled detail work was driving me batty and I approached the album as a form of release for my hands and head. I would leaf through the album and choose a photograph, then make a loose drawing in ball point pen on a canvas primed with acrylic gesso. I think this was the time I began removing my glasses to paint. Then the sharp lines vanish and blobs and washes of tone emerge. I used blue and brown oil paints and a lot of damar varnish. The painting was like doing a dance. I’d work quickly in a sort of reverie. And afterward, how funny it seemed to me that these grisailles were so lively compared to the labored commission. It was much later that I realized how heavily focused the paintings are on women and children.
James says that one of the babies pictured died as an infant. Here is the matriarch with her daughters. And there is young Virginia, bent over in the field behind the house. Constantine, the photographer, her father, passed away in the early 2000s. Virginia and James’ son brings his new baby over to visit. One generation passeth away, and another cometh. It must be easier to paint someone else’s family photographs.