Friday, March 31, 2006

Hills North of Tunis

On the hills north of Tunis I found these tall thin plants. They look identical to ones we used to see in the Chihuahua Desert of southwest Texas. I don't think this photo will show it, but during wet seasons, the stalks are covered with yellow buds that turn white at the top.

The best part of doing this painting was having my son working beside me on a painting of his own. I cleared a space for him in my studio, prepared a piece of paper for him and let him pick a photograph he wanted to work from. Then we just worked side by side, painting and talking about things. I don't know if he'll remember it tomorrow, but I will treasure it for the rest of my life.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Fenceline Oak

It took me a few days to get back to this, but here's the finished product.

School has resumed and I'm caught up in the activity associated with learning my new schedule, buying books, and figuring out what's going to be expected of me for the next quarter. In spite of all this, or maybe because of it, I'll still be up painting most nights after we get the kids to bed.

I have some more book news. All the paintings for my book Notes of Joy and Sadness, a collection of paintings and letters from my deployments in the War on Terror, have been digitized and are being shipped back to me at this very moment. That's 45 or so paintings representing who-knows how many hours of work all in a box being tossed around by people who have no idea how I labored over them and worry about them. It's better than when I shipped them out there though. Then I had all the same worries about whether they would be lost or damaged, but I also couldn't stop thinking that if they got lost in transit I'd lose not only the paintings but the book as well. Now at least, even if the paintings don't make it back home they will be in the book.

Soon I should have a proof, and I'll actually see what this thing looks like. I was hoping to see how the paintings digitized first, and I'm hoping when the paintings arrive they'll be accompanied by a disk with the digital images on it so I can assure myself that they're color true and well-lighted. I'll let you know.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

In Media Res

It's probably bad form to show a work before it's finished, but I've never been one to conform. Here's a painting I just started this evening. It's another large one; the image is 18 X 12.5 inches. I got a lot done tonight, but there's plenty left to do. Lots of new growth on the ends of the branches, which is a completely different color, and lots of Spanish moss too. The challenge will be to do all that detail work in a little looser style than I'm accustomed to. I want to give the impression of thousands of new twigs and clouds of Spanish moss, without actually detailing every single one.

I spent some time in galleries today, looking for an outlet for my local landscapes (You can see other paintings of mine at Ocmulgee Arts in Macon, GA and Parchman Stremmel Galleries in San Antonio, TX.) and looking at all the Old California Painters I could find. I saw three Percy Gray watercolors I'd never seen before, and that alone was worth the time.

If you have a moment, visit this site
and have a look at the work of Percy Gray (1869-1952). Beautiful, beautiful paintings. They make me want to drop everything and grab my brushes and not eat or sleep until I can do what he did.

As long as I'm making suggestions, google Frank Reaugh and take a look at his work. His was the first work that ever really spoke to me and told me that one day I would be a painter. He used to go out with cowboys on cattle drives. Because of the constant wind of west Texas and the difficult traveling conditions, he worked very small. Somehow though, he managed to pack incredible vistas into his tiny oil pastels.

That's it for now; hopefully I'll have this painting finished and posted tomorrow.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Canyon Shadows

Winter rains have turned the hills green now, but I'm still working from photos of fall's golden hills. I guess I should get out more.

This photo of the painting is unevenly lighted, so it shows up lighter than it should in the top left corner and darker in the bottom right corner. Who knew that being a painter would entail so much work on improving my photography?

I heard today that Operation Homecoming, the anthology of war stories being published by Random House, will be out in September, and will be one of that publisher's lead titles. This book will feature two of the stories I wrote home from my deployments.

You can read more of my deployment stories and see paintings of scenes in and around Iraq when my book, Notes of Joy and Sadness is released in May. To see some of the paintings and read excerpts and reviews, please visit my January archives.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Here's the painting I started the other night. It's finished, which is a good thing, because I have an economics final tomorrow.

The painting is 28 X 13 inches, which is larger than I usually work, so it took some getting used to.

After tomorrow I'll get back to painting and posting more regularly. Hopefully soon I'll have more news regarding my book. The publisher says we're on schedule, but I haven't seen a proof yet.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Should be studying...

I have one more final left and I should be studying for it, but it's been a couple days since I've picked up a paintbrush so I had to start a painting. That's all this is so far - just a start. I'll let you know how it turns out.

This is from a photograph I took of a storm over Robinson Canyon, which is just off Carmel Valley Road. It's a large painting, and I'm trying some new techniques that I'm not so sure of, so I have a very vague feeling about how it's going to turn out.

Sometimes from the moment I put brush to paper I can see how a painting is going to work out. That's a great feeling and it's pretty exciting. Other times I have picture in my mind but I find out in short order that the painting has its own ideas. Those are often frustrating paintings, but sometimes they end up being my favorites.

Whether or not they do, those are the paintings from which I learn the most, so even when I'm struggling with them I try to be grateful.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


I'm in the middle of finals for this quarter, so I'm not able to get any painting done, and I have no updates for you on the status of my book. So to keep you company I'll post this, a little story about a recent trip I took to Tunisia.

Please feel free to visit my previous posts to see some of my paintings.


Recently I spent a month in Tunisia taking an Arabic language course. I not only improved my ability to speak Arabic, but learned a bit about the country and the people as well. What I didn’t expect was the lesson I learned about America.

Mohamed, my instructor, was 61 and a devout Muslim. When I met him he was eagerly anticipating his next marriage - to a 28 year old woman. Understandably, this impending marriage was one of his favorite topics of conversation. He was almost as fond of reminding me that, when he lived in Libya, he had been Qaddafi’s best translator.

Professor Mohamed was convinced that the crowning achievement of his life would be to convert me to Islam. The evidence of this inevitability was the revelation that my son’s name is Zachariah. I tried several times to tell him that it’s Zachary, but he corrected me every time. Mohamed was a nice guy who taught enthusiastically, which was his greatest deficiency. When he got excited he either quoted long passages of the Koran (which he compelled me to write down) or he lapsed into French. I’m not sure which was worse.

One day Mohamed and I were exploring how to make a statement negative in Arabic. There are several ways of doing this, depending on verb tense and other factors. I’d grown accustomed to professor Mohamed veering off in strange directions and he had just done so to discuss his impending marriage again. I was well accustomed to this topic of conversation, but this time he varied the theme by including a disturbingly graphic description of the steps he’s taking to ensure that he’ll be physically capable of meeting the renewed demands of married life. Directly after this lengthy exploration of the upcoming nuptials he steered us abruptly back on task with the segue, “So, let us discuss for negation.”

If you try saying “fornegation” aloud in a heavy Arabic accent, you’ll understand what a shock I sustained.

Of course, linguistic differences aren’t the greatest challenge you meet when you travel. They’re just one of the easiest to talk about in polite company. When it comes to visiting foreign places, what everyone secretly wonders about but hardly ever mentions is the question of where one goes to the bathroom.

To be fair, I should emphasize that Tunisia is way ahead of the rest of the Dark Continent when it comes to porcelain technology. I was confronted with very few bombardier toilets, those awkward contrivances where you simply squat over a hole in the floor. They say these are better for you than sit-on toilets; that squatting strengthens the “pelvic floor” (whatever that is) and is less likely to cause hemorrhoids. I can’t say one way or the other. All I know is that it’s an awkward way to conduct business, and it’s no place to enjoy a good book. Thankfully, much of Tunisia seems to have evolved beyond that stage.

But Tunisians still have some work to do before they make it into the first world, or even the second world for that matter. This is plain when you visit even the most elegant toilets in the country. Whether they are in the finest homes or restaurants, they almost always lack that hallmark of the civilized society we call toilet paper.

In the bathrooms I’m talking about, there is not even a place to hang the paper. Instead, you find protruding from a spigot next to the toilet a flexible length of tubing with a spray head. I’ll not explain how this apparatus is used. I will say only that the water is always cold, and even when clean, you are still wet when all is said and done.

I devised three ways to solve this problem. First, I tried never to use the bathroom when away from home.

My second approach was to use only the bathroom in the lobby of the Hotel Belvedere. The Belvedere is a magical place. People there smiled at me with hope shining in their eyes. A cynic would say it’s because they were potential émigrés to Canada and they mistook me for an interviewer on break. I, however, put it down to the fact that the red-uniformed minions of the hotel regularly clean the bathrooms in the lobby and stock them with good old-fashioned two-ply American ingenuity. If I owned the hotel, I would trumpet this in my advertising. I would erect billboards and hire spots in European travel magazines saying, “The Hotel Belvedere, Tunis, is the place to go.”

But as I ranged farther from the hotel, I needed to make other arrangements. I resolved to always carry an emergency supply of paper. (I actually found some for sale at the “Super Marché,” which is strange, because I can’t imagine who’s buying it.) Of course, one’s noblest goals are not always guaranteed success, and I discovered one day while deep in a labyrinthine bazaar that I had seriously under-stocked. The timing was unfortunate, as I was in a facility that had been built during the Ottoman Empire and did not seem to have been cleaned since.

Once I learned how much toilet paper to carry my attention shifted to a different level in the hierarchy of needs. Transportation became the issue.

Traffic in Tunisia is hellish. Friends at the embassy insisted that I should not even consider driving. If they could have been any more emphatic, they would have been so regarding driving at night. This is when people with an underdeveloped sense of distance, mass, and impact are further impaired by the lack of streetlights, bright clothing, and sense of self preservation. Dark-clothed Tunisians lurk in the shadows and launch themselves in front of cars like jackrabbits. And that’s just the pedestrians. Drivers are bound by no laws of courtesy or reason. I think the national motto is “make your own lane.”

In the capital, Tunis, a street with two lanes is an invitation to drive 5 abreast, and there is no restraint when it comes to passing. It is a national law that you must pass everyone ahead of you at all costs. Failure to pass is probably the only behavior for which you can receive a ticket.

Despite their wild driving, no self-respecting Tunisian would ever wear a seatbelt. I astounded all my friends by digging the belts out of the recesses of their car seats and buckling myself in. My friend Khalil made a gesture of solidarity once by draping his lap belt across his arm, but his heart was not in it and he soon gave up. This is to be expected from a man who has developed an extensive list of better places for his hands to be than the steering wheel of the car.

Among the better uses for his hands are brushing nonexistent crumbs from his lap, rubbing his eyes, (That’s the one that scares me the most.) stretching, scratching, and adjusting the radio. (Yes, it can be done with both hands.) Sometimes Anisa, his wife, points out that he should touch the wheel occasionally (not to steer the car, but just as a ritual to placate the gods of traffic) to which he responds by gripping it with his knees.

The taxis here are built by the French. Renaults, Citroens, and Peugeots fill the streets and this makes perfect sense. Who else could design and build a vehicle to be driven in a completely irrational manner and that is likely to be driven just as fast in reverse as forward?

I believe Tunisian cabbies are bus drivers who have fallen from grace. Whereas bus drivers rule the road and, by virtue of the size of their vehicles and the number of souls contained therein, can intimidate any driver of any vehicle, Tunisian cabbies only think they can. They beetle along at frightening speed (having created their own lane) in search of a vehicular obstruction, such as the bumper of a car that is waiting for the light to turn green. They blaze up to the halted car with no apparent intention of stopping, flashing their high beams and honking their horn as if it were the Chinese New Year. If a bus does this, things happen. The irresistible force dislodges the immovable object and the driver at the red light launches himself into heavy traffic rather than being crushed by tons of bus and sweaty commuters. This hardly ever works for taxi drivers though, and they resent it. They fume behind the car in front of them and gesticulate wildly. They abandon their lane and create a new one, sometimes in oncoming traffic.

One cabby seemed an exception to this rule. He was pleasant and easy going. He seemed at peace with the traffic around us, and he kept our speed subsonic. Everything was relaxed for the first few moments of our trip, but all this changed when I remembered to put on my seatbelt. In Tunisia I always did this with an apologetic explanation. “It’s not you, it’s me,” I would explain. Or, “It’s just a bad habit of mine. I have complete faith in you and all Tunisian drivers.” If none of those worked I would say, “I wear this seatbelt because I am a weak person,” with a doleful expression and hands outspread, begging for understanding. That usually soothed even the most ruffled cabby egos, but not this one. My driver became visibly upset. His swarthy complexion became mottled with rage, and he flogged the accelerator to demonstrate his displeasure. Our flimsy Peugeot rocketed down the street slewing violently from side to side and passing traffic like it was going backwards. I have a vivid memory of a face on a billboard – a Tunisian Natasha Kinski look-alike selling feminine hygiene products – stretched into that of a leering monster by the astronomical speed. The cabby’s voice cracked with rage and despair as he shouted and grappled with me for the buckle of the seatbelt. I contemplated hurling myself from the speeding car into a pile of newspaper and rotting vegetables, but by the time the idea had suggested itself, I was several light years beyond my intended landing spot. I had no choice. I allowed him to release the buckle. The seatbelt slowly retracted into where it had rested since the car left the factory, taking with it most of my driver’s agitation. What was left, he dealt with admirably by humming and occasionally pounding his fist on the outside of his door.

Buses weren’t much better. I felt more endangered in cabs, but often took the risk to avoid being pressed into the malodorous masses of compacted commuters sweltering on every bus. Besides, taxis seemed to run on a more predictable schedule. I discovered this when meeting my Arabic tutor in downtown Tunis one morning. I wanted to get there early, so I climbed aboard a bus a half-hour earlier than I would have normally. The bus idled at the stop for thirty minutes while the driver and conductor talked, smoked, and cast dark glances at passing schoolgirls.

And had I driven myself, even assuming I could avoid a fiery crash, things would not have been much better. My tutor, a very nice lady who sweats profusely and looks like a Muslim version of Andy Griffith’s Aunt Bea, was commonly forty minutes late for our sessions because she could never find a place to park. On one occasion I stood on the corner and watched as she drove around the block again and again. I shouted encouragement to her in Arabic, but it wasn’t much of a tutoring session. When she finally found a spot (And she wasn’t driving a Lincoln Town Car, you know; it was one of those tiny Euro cars that she could’ve tucked under her arm and carried through the double doors of the Hotel Belvedere.) When she finally found a spot (on the sidewalk) I told her that she must sell her car and invest in a good donkey. Gas is very expensive and cars are hard to park, but she could tie the donkey right in front of the Cuban embassy and it could eat the bougainvillea that hangs over the wall. She listened very politely, but I could tell she wasn’t taking me seriously. It’s the downside of being a foreigner here, I guess.

Now that I’m home it occurs to me that I should have just jumped into the car as she went by. That way she could have tutored me while she drove. It’s not like she was hanging onto the steering wheel anyway.

While in every country there are certain sights that no traveler should miss (the Pyramids at Giza, Egypt, and the ancient city of Petra, Jordan, for instance) I’m usually not very interested in tourist draws. I’d much rather spend time with people and see what their lives are like. Professor Mohamed would have none of this. In addition to his other talents, he was also a certified tour guide, fully accredited by the government of Tunisia. In view of this, he insisted on taking up as much of my free time as possible with tours of the officially recognized touristic sites, of which there are too many to recount here. I will say only that these places, the Bardo, and National Museums among them, are stuffed floor to ceiling with wonderful and ancient artifacts. They positively bulge with displays of mosaics, pottery shards, and statuary predating Hannibal, and each, without exception, left me with the same feeling of disorientation I experience in Walmart. The rows seem to close in on me and everything on the shelves begins to look the same. Within minutes I can’t tell whether I’m seeing something for the first time or have been wandering in circles for hours.

So I was relieved when, after only a half day in the ruins of Carthage, the professor begged my forgiveness and headed off to an appointment. I immediately left the tourist site and headed down a shaded lane. Taxis honked and flashed their lights, hoping I was a fare, but having just escaped tourism vertigo I was in no hurry to risk my life in traffic. Tall trees overhung the widening street as it led me out of town. Sheep and goats grazed on nearby hills. Across the street from me a stone and metal wall enclosed an area I imagined to be an estate, but when I reached the gate I saw a sign that read, “North African American Cemetery And Memorial.”

I’d heard there was an American WWII cemetery near Carthage, but I hadn’t planned on visiting. Seeing as I was already there though, I thought I’d take a look. I was completely unprepared for what I found. Stepping through the gate was like entering another world. Gone was dusty, hectic, slapdash North Africa; replaced by 27 acres of ordered peace and tranquility. A flight of stone steps led down to a flawless carpet of grass - the kind of grass that would be envied by the keeper of a golf course, except for the 2,840 white marble crosses and stars of David that rise from it in perfect rank and file.

The sea of white markers draws you down those stairs and the perfect order of the rows compels you to wander the walkways between them. And while you wander, you can’t help but read the names.

It was the names that got me. The crosses and the stars, the perfect order – the hush, through which penetrated only the sound of the luffing flag, these all combined to form an atmosphere of reverence, but the names broke my heart. Figures of stone remain just that, no matter how beautifully wrought, but names brought flesh to the bones beneath the grass. Italian, Polish, Danish, Irish – names of every origin, but all American, and every one of them a story interrupted. Each a father, son, brother, husband, or lover who would never again be held by those who loved them, never tell the story of the battle in which they died.

And when I tired of walking the rows (and to be truthful, it was less a question of fatigue than of my eyes being too full of tears to read more names) I found a wall covered with even more. On this wall were carved the 3,724 names of the missing from battles since the Second World War until the first Gulf War, those for whom not even a cross or star marks the location of their remains, those whose story while also interrupted, even so, (more cruelly) continues. For perhaps the only thing worse than knowing your loved one lies in a far-off grave is not knowing where they lie.

Some people will travel halfway round the world, and spend their whole time there seeking out people from their own country. I’ve never understood that, always preferring to lose myself on the hillsides or alleys where I’m more likely to meet a local shepherd or mechanic than another American. That has always, to my mind, made for more memorable trips. Tunisia, though, will remain the exception to that rule. The memories of my visit there and the friendships that I formed are forever eclipsed by the afternoon I spent in the company of more than two thousand of my countrymen.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Red Steer, Green Pasture

Here's tonight's painting. I started it last night but couldn't finish before I was overtaken by the need for sleep. I used to keep painting beyond that point, but I always regretted it in the morning, when I looked at what I'd done.

No word recently from my publisher. I should be receiving a proof of my book very soon, including the final cover art, which I'll post here as soon as I can.

Snow Birds Crossing

We drove way up Carmel Valley looking for deep snow to play in (Deep, by local standards is an inch.) As we drove we saw a large flock of wild turkeys in a field, a covey of quail along the side of the road, and this mother bird with her chicks.

We'd made a similar group of tiny snow men crossing the road, and the kids were excited to see them get run over. Drivers went so far out of their way to avoid them though, that I feared we would cause an accident. We substituted them for these birds, and for some reason drivers were less reluctant to smash them, much to the kids' delight.


Snow visited the Carmel Valley this weekend. There's been a fairly substantial dusting on the highest peaks for the last few days, but the lower elevations got it for the first time in years. We got up Saturday morning, packed everybody into the Odyssey and headed for the hills to play in the white stuff. The snow line was very dramatic, as you can see in this picture. I'd love to paint this scene, but it looks so unrealistic that even if I painted in perfectly, I don't think the image would be credible.

Friday, March 10, 2006

New Mexico Spring

If Carmel, CA is one of the most beautiful parts of the country (and it is) why am I painting New Mexico? Sometimes an image lodges in my brain and refuses to leave until I paint it. That's what happened with this one.

I like this panoramic format. The painting is 28 X 8 inches. I happen to have several nice frames in this size and I had some mats cut to fit them, so whenever I want to paint a panoramic western landscape I have a ready-made home for it.

It's been a while, so I should probably mention that the original reason for establishing this site was to post updates on my book, Notes of Joy and Sadness which is a collection of letters and paintings from my two deployments in support of the War on Terror. It'll be out to the bookstores in May.

You can view many of the paintings of Iraqi scenes as well as read excerpts and reviews in the January archives of this site. Very soon now, I should have a proof of the book, as well as the final cover design. I'll post them as soon as I get them.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Plein Air

When it comes to assigning fancy words to everyday concepts, artists are almost as good as the military. "Plein Air" just means painting outdoors, and it's something I've been trying to work on lately. I painted this little watercolor today, and it was cold out, so I worked pretty quickly. Even when it's warm, you have to work more quickly outdoors because you never know when conditions will change.

That's not the only difficult thing about Plein Air painting. At least in my case, it's tough to confine yourself to just the image you want on your paper. Whereas when you work from a photograph the image is already isolated within the bounds of the photo, when I paint outdoors my eye wanders, and before I know it, I'm incorporating elements that are outside the area I'm trying to paint. I suppose that can sometimes be a good thing, but usually it just means my painting ends up being a mess.

In this case I worked hard on keeping my focus on the image I wanted to capture, and I think it worked out relatively well, at least for 20 minutes' work.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Beats Doing Homework...

I'm about 20 pages behind on a paper I'm writing about the Berbers (That's the people from North Africa, not the carpets.) but I couldn't stay in the house today. Susan and I took the kids to galleries in Carmel By the Sea and had a much better time than I would have had sitting in front of the computer. Besides, the Berbers have been around (by some estimates) since pre-dynastic Egypt. They can wait a day or two more for me to write about them.

We saw quite a few paintings by some of the great artists who came out here way back when it was a cheap place to live. Lots of beautiful rolling hills, rocky coasts, shadow-cast canyons and always trees. There's so much variety in the trees here. You have the gigantic old oaks, spreading branches out in every direction, some even resting on the ground before lifting back up, so that there is a wide shaded space beneath them. Then there are the Monterey cypress, which look as if they're in a hurricane, even when there's no wind. There are also the eucalyptus, which sometimes throw straight, slender trunks up 20 feet or so before producing the branches from which depend the long, thin, droopy leaves. There is a lifetime's worth of lessons just in the trees alone here.

Somehow these early California painters got the trees down and moved on to bigger things before they hung up their brushes. My favorite paintings capture the quality of the air; the way moisture or dust suspended in it holds the light. When I see a painting like that it makes me take a deep breath.

So of course after a few hours in galleries combined with the inspiration provided by the sky (It rained heavily last night. This morning the rain turned to hail and then the sun made a spectacular show of breaking through the clouds and making steam rise from the streets.) I had to spend at least a little time in the studio before I went to bed. Spring in the Valley, the painting you see above, is the result.