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What Painting Is

I’ve just read a fascinating, eccentric, sometimes frustrating, and very passionate book called What Painting Is by James Elkins. Mr. Elkins is an art critic and historian based at the Art Institute of Chicago. The sub-title of What Painting Is is: How to Think about Oil Painting, Using the Language of Alchemy. It was published in 1999.

I don’t read a great deal of art criticism these days. I think sometimes of Dennis Oppenheim’s fireworks sign, proclaiming Go further with fiction. However, when my friend Jacob, also a painter, recommended the Elkins book to me it caught my attention. After all, who thinks about alchemy these days? I was not sure I even understood what alchemy is – or was – much less its history.

What is Elkins going on about? Let’s start at the end: “Above all,” he writes, “alchemy is the record of serious, sustained attempts to understand what substances are and how they carry meaning. And for that reason it is the best voice for artists who wrestle every day with materials they do not comprehend and methods they can never entirely master. Science has closed off almost every unsystematic encounter with the world. Alchemy and painting are two of the last remaining paths into the deliriously beautiful world of unnamed substances.” I’ll buy that.

And now skipping back to the beginning: “So painting and other visual arts are one example of negotiations between water and stone, and the other is alchemy. In alchemy, the Stone (with a capital S) is the ultimate goal, and one of the purposes of alchemy is to turn something as liquid as water into a substance as firm and unmeltable as stone. As in painting, the means are liquid and the ends are solid. And as in painting, most of alchemy does not have to do with either pure water or hard stones, but with mixtures of the two. Alchemists worked with viscid stews, with tacky drying films, with brittle skins of slag: in short they are concerned with the same range of half-fluids as painters and other artists.

Sometimes art criticism and art history writing seems foreign to me, as if it were about something besides the activity I’ve immersed myself in for many years. Elkins begins with a recognition of the studio and what happens there. He even writes about painting studios in terms of filth, reminding me of photos of the famous squalor of Francis Bacon’s studio.

Here is the thing, the secret. We start with nothing, “a head full of ideas, driving me insane” as Bob Dylan wrote. Blank canvases, boxes of paint, images all over the walls and the floor. Books. Music blasting. Somewhere, somehow, in the stew of it all, all this stuff becomes painting. Creating stuff is some kind of magic. There is a moment, a split second in time when all this coloured goo becomes something else. I know. I’m a painting junkie. Like a fiend with his dope, I need that magic again and again. I’ve tried to pack in painting I don’t know how many times. Then I think, hey I’m just going to work on this one painting. That’s all. I’m not really going to start painting again. It’ll be OK. I can stop anytime. Philip Guston wrote, “Sometimes I scrape off a lot. You have on the floor, like cow dung in the field, this big glob of paint… and it’s just a lot of inert matter, inert paint. Then I look back at the canvas, and it’s not inert – it’s active, moving and living.” There is the rub.

I was quite taken with the chapter on “Steplessness”. He writes about old master paintings made in a sequence of steps, but without becoming systematic. Some of these techniques are permanently lost to us today. Elkins writes,”Like alchemy, painting has always been insecure about its most basic store in information.” And…”In painting, it may be that the scattered painting manuals and the old letters and anecdotes are mostly right, and that classical painting was an elaborate body of knowledge, something that had to be learned slowly, from the ground up, in a four-year curriculum or a long apprenticeship. But it may also be that painting is intuitive, and that studio instruction only provides hints and strategies. Perhaps a great painting can happen suddenly with no planning or working by stages.”

But what of paintings made from the Impressionists on, when paintings have been made without separate steps at all? Elkins: “The unease that many parents feel when their children set out to study art is partly because they sense that there is no systematic technical instruction in contemporary art schools. In a large sense, that is correct because there is no longer a succession of definite kinds of information that must be learned in a certain order. Painting might take years of preparation and experience, but a truly great painting might also happen in a few minutes of intense work.

The comparison between painting and alchemy is apt. Elkins runs mighty far with this though, and writes much more about alchemy than I can digest. In fact, I put down the book several times. OK I get it, that’s what I thought. Still, it is a fascinating if eccentric way in, a way to begin to talk about painting with a recognition of the struggle in the studio, a recognition of how meaning can emerge from the substance of paint.

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Fiddle Faddle


I’m fascinated with fiddle music, but the fiddle scares me. Having heard some mighty fine fiddle players close up, I know there is only one possible explanation for how they do it. Obviously, they’ve made a deal with the devil. I mean, humans can’t possibly play like that, right?

Many times I’ve thought, OK I picked up the button accordion as a middle-aged guy and did OK with it, and then I picked up the banjo and I think I’m doing OK playing some clawhammer too, why not buy a previously loved fiddle and give it a go? After all, I’m familiar with a lot of old time music and surely the fiddle is just a different machine? The obvious reason is it looks hard, really hard. I’ve got hands like canned hams and fiddles have a small fingerboard and no frets to help along the way. And then there is the whole matter of bowing. Clearly it is impossible to learn fiddle without intervention. I don’t know if I’m more afraid of failure or of a visit from a sinister guy you says, you know I can help you out with that. Let’s talk.

Last year when I was at Midwest Banjo Camp attending classes last year, Byron Berline was there as an instructor and he is one helluva fiddle player. At one of the faculty concerts he did a piece called Fiddle Faddle, demonstrating how simple playing the fiddle is. Of course I don’t believe him.

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Soup of the week at the Comfort Food Diner

I’ve been making a different soup each week over the past few weeks. Today it was split pea, one of my faves. Split pea soup is super-easy to make and it is delicious. Today I did it with just a slight twist.

When I was growing up, my mom would make split pea after we had a ham dinner. This is because she used the ham bone to add depth to the broth. I didn’t have a ham bone today, but when I stopped by Starsky’s this morning, I saw they had smoked pork ribs. I figured they would add the same kind of smokey goodness to the broth that mom’s ham bone did so I bought some. Some people will tell you that you don’t need any bones or meat to make a great split pea soup. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. I do know that you need them if you want to create a soup that will evoke my childhood memories and all that entails.

Here’s how I made my split pea soup:

I chopped up an onion and sauteed it gently in my soup pot. While it sweated, I added salt, pepper and dry thyme leaves. I had some celery in the fridge. It was starting to lose its crispness but was still fine for soup, so I chopped it all up and added it to the onions. There is no need to chop things super-fine for this soup by the way. Coarsely chopped onions and celery are just fine. If you wanted to chop in a carrot or perhaps a red or green pepper, that would be fine too. Use what you have available.

I diced up a couple cloves of garlic and tossed them in as well. The thing with the garlic is you don’t want it to brown and burn and get all harsh on you, so I add mine once I judge the onions and celery are sauteed enough. For this soup I don’t caramelize the onions. I just gently cook them for 5 minutes or so with the celery then another minute with the garlic.

At that point I added some stock and some water for additional liquid. Then I rinsed about 3 cups of dried split peas and tossed them in. I can’t tell you a ratio of liquid to split peas, only that for a pot of soup in my soup pot, 3 cups is about right. This is about half a bag. I cut my strip of smoked ribs into a few pieces and added them in. All you really need is a piece, but I got a little carried away.

Once I got this concoction simmering slowly with a lid on, I let it be and went to play the banjo for a while. While it isn’t necessary to play banjo to make a good split pea soup, I recommend it. At some point, be sure to taste your soup to make sure the seasoning is right. By the way, don’t let anyone tell you split pea soup needs to be pureed or even partly pureed. In my world, the finished texture is just right without messing with it. I let my soup simmer for about 2 and a half hours and served it with some fresh ground pepper and plenty of crusty French bread.

It doesn’t get much better.

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Choir Choir Choir

When our friend Toni visits, Tuffy P comes up with “envelopes”, each representing a top secret activity. Yesterday evening, we drove down to the Queen and Ossington area where we met up with their friends from way back in high school, Ann and Mary Lou.

Our destination turned out to be a Choir Choir Choir event at The Great Hall. This is an event in which the audience/participants are divided up by low, medium and high voices, and everyone is taught a song. Last night the goal was to learn a Big Star song called Thirteen. Jody Stephens, the last living member of Big Star was on-hand to sing the lead.

There were a couple hundred people all standing in The Great Hall. They had a bar so everyone could enjoy a drink before things got underway. I appreciated a bit of booze since here I was at a singing event, knowing full well I don’t sing very well. I’m much more comfortable playing the banjo.

Here is the Big Star recording of Thirteen…

They had two guys teaching the song – one of them with a guitar. I was impressed at how quickly they managed to teach the three part arrangement and lo and behold the group sounded really good (not just the Irish whiskey talking). As I mentioned I’m not much of a singer, but I did my best and participated without achieving scowls from folks around me.

Once we knew the song, they brought Jody Stephens out and they filmed a few takes of the song with him singing lead and everyone else singing their designated parts. The idea is they edit up a final version and put it on YouTube. Here’s one of their videos to give you an idea what goes on at one of these events….

This morning Toni and Tuffy P took off on another adventure. I’ll be making a nice soup for dinner and then Toni will be on her way back to Glasgow tonight.







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Somebody stole….

Somebody stole the “Stop the Lot Splitting” sign from our front lawn. Cads! Ne’er do wells! Who could the culprits be? Maybe I need a “Stop the Lot Splitting” billboard…..

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Off to the Museum


Tuffy P, our friend Toni (who is visiting from Glasgow), and I sallied forth to the ROM today to see the Blue Whale exhibit. Some readers may remember seeing news stories about a huge blue whale carcass dead and rotting at Trout River Newfoundland back in 2014. The skeleton of this whale surrounded by a fantastic interactive exhibition is now on display at the ROM.

Also on display at the ROM is an excellent exhibition of asafo flags from Ghana. Asafos are community militia companies, each with its own flag. Some of the images are fantastic. IMG_8001.jpg

Lunch after the museum was Indian food at Utsav in Yorkville. Beautiful lunch, delicate flavours.

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Theatre and BBQ

Our friend Toni is in town (yay!), and Tuffy P was prepared with tickets to the latest production at the Coal Mine Theatre, called Orphans. It was a very intense play, but very well done and the theatre is charming with its seats set up on either side of the stage.


Toni and Tuffy P at the Coal Mine Theatre

Once we got home, the rain was kind enough to hold off while I worked the bbq and came up with a mixed grill, while Toni cobbled together a beautiful salad. IMG_7992.jpg

We topped off the evening with several games of scrabble. Excellent day.

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When I was growing up, my mom made a very cakey bread at Easter – called babka, usually with a glazed top, a very open texture and a smattering of raisins. While I learned to cook most of the savoury Polish dishes she made for us, I never learned to make her babka.

Tuffy P is Ukrainian/Irish. Her mom was very Ukrainian and at Easter made delicious paska. She made the bread straight up, but Tuffy P tells me her Aunt Annie made it with all the bells and whistle decorations usually associated with paska – including little chicks with cloves for eyes. We make ours without decorations and without raisins or other fruit. We do add lemon zest and lemon juice though and my paska has just a hint of lemon after baking.

Of course this bread is symbolically tied right in with religion and when my paska rises, that isn’t lost on me, even though I abandoned the church at a young age. I think of it more as a rite of spring, and when my dough rises again, I’m more likely to be humming the Mary Ellen Carter than any hymn.

We make lots and usually give loaves away to friends, and freeze a coupleĀ  for paskalicious toast later on. I enjoy that it is something we make just once each year and something we share.

It takes some time to make a good paska, and I like that. You need some commitment to make it, and that’s something important to me in the instant gratification world we inhabit. I started late last night and made a sponge – basically a first rise, with less than half the flour in the mix.


Getting started

This morning, I added in more flour until it was a soft and still slightly sticky dough, so I could just knead it without it becoming a sticky mess. At this point I split the dough into two bowls and let it rise for a couple hours.


Punching down the dough

After the dough was well-risen, I punched it down, and cut it into pieces for the next step. We make our paska in coffee cans. Each can is coated with oil and then a layer of breadcrumbs. I dropped a piece of dough into each can, covered them with a tea towel, and let them rise in the cans for a couple hours.


Paska after baking

We had to test a loaf (for strictly scientific purposes you understand), just to make sure it was just right. IMG_7938.jpg

Although it is delicious plain, we couldn’t resist buttering the warm paska. This was a good batch, very light with a nice open crumb. Very tasty. I confess we destroyed that loaf in short order.

If you have questions about paska, leave them in the comments and I’ll try to answer. If you’re hankering for more detail on how to make it, email me.

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Howard Hodgkin RIP

The great British painter Howard Hodgkin passed on March 9 of this year, but I only found out about it last evening, which Tuffy P came across something on the internet. He was 84. Mr. Hodgkin made deceptively simple, powerful abstract paintings. In some of them he included frames, which he painted on as part of the work. Last year Tuffy P saw 7 of his works at the Aga Khan museum here in Toronto. I would love to see a retrospective of his work.

Mr. Hodgkin has also been recognized for his extensive collection of Indian paintings and drawings, comprised of over 115 works, many from the Mughal period (c.1550-1850).




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Go News

For fans of the game of Go (wei chi in China, baduk in Korea), there is some news, and surprise surprise, it has to do with Alpha Go, the AI go master who whupped Lee Sedol last year, then whupped top pro players in 60 online games.

May 23-27 there will be 3 events taking place in China. Alpha Go will be playing a 3-game challenge match with the #1 rated player in the world, Ke Jie, There will also be a 5 vs 1 match pitting Alpha Go against the 5 person Chinese national go team. Finally there will be some kind of pair go match which (if I’m understanding this correctly) will have a Chinese player + Alpha Go vs another Chinese player + Alpha Go playing ren-go, in which team-mates alternate making moves.

By this point, I think it is generally acknowledged among pro Go players that Alpha Go is a bit stronger than all of them, but we’ll see what happens. Already pros have been studying Alpha Go games and incorporating some of the AI’s favoured moves into their own play.

Filed under: Go