August 12, 2018


48" x 36", mixed media on birch panel

Here's a piece I finished a few months ago but forgot to post. It's a picture of 7th and Alvarado in L.A., in the Westlake area with Skid Row in the distance, reminding us how unromantic the city can be.

The street is narrower and the buildings and figures are sketchier, more gestural than they would be in reality, but more to my aesthetic liking and part, more importantly, of my grand scheme to persuade everyone that density can be good and the North American appetite for space and sprawl is really a form of misanthropy.

Incidentally, Alvarado St. is named after the 19th-century governor of California (when California was still Mexico), Juan Bautista Alvarado. Alvarado led a coup to take Monterey, which was then the capital of both Alta and Baja California, and for a time he declared California an independent country. But Mexico quickly took the territory back, and then of course the gringos took it from Mexico. The rest is history.

You can find this and other paintings like 'er on my website,

¡Que tengas un buen día!

July 26, 2018

Together (No. 16)

Acrylic CMYK on birch panel, 30" x 40"
When I was a young punk and played hockey, the teammates who had the crappiest sticks and oldest skates but still performed at a high level seized my imagination more than those lucky enough to afford the latest, slickest gear. While the one group, it seemed to me, had found ways to work with and around limitations, the other had resorted to a cheap technological compensation.

In art, I sometimes regret how much effort is put into throwing off apparent confines and finding secretive edges up on the competition by using fancy materials or pricey shortcuts. Though it may seem antithetical, artistic freedom and the expansionary impulse aren't the same to me. Take poetry. For most of its history poetry was not about blasting open the form but confining the words to a set metre or rhyming pattern, while making the thoughts zing all the same. Or storytelling. The crucible of characters being shoved together and unable to escape one another is often what builds the tension and makes the story.

In painting, I've participated in dozens of plein air contests (the artistic equivalent to improv in music or comedy, when they're serious) and they've never been about unrestricted freedom. Instead, they're stressful, frustrating, and exhausting, but the time limits, minimal materials, and unideal conditions force you to reach down deeper and hit on ideas that don't come any other way.

These weeks I've been away from my familiar workspace, with the paints, tools, and machines in just the places I wish them to be. I've also, admittedly, had too much change in my environment, filling the headspace I need to work with smoke. Nonetheless, I did complete this one painting, a "Together," the most minimal type of painting I do. The series is all about boundaries and limits, down to the restricted CMYK palette and focus on pedestrianized space.

The finished piece feels, I don't know, symbolic, in more ways than one. In ways I hadn't intended.

July 1, 2018

L.A. to Toronto Roadtrip Notes: Day 11 and 12, Chicago

In penetrating the Windy City, we fight through an hour or so of traffic and arrive at our "urban holiday loft" in the trendy Bucktown neighbourhood.

We park, leave our big backpacks in our room, and head out on foot for 4-5 miles in the dusk.

Ah, right away, metal beams and rivets, bitten by winter, and rusting. Graffiti. Old water towers. Cobwebs of overhead wires. Socialist posters impolitely saying what Trump really is and not a few people who are unafraid to tell us on the street. This is all very un-Californian.

The next day we're up early and at it again, though now we buy day passes for the subway. Along the way we chat with four strangers, none of them patriots or uninteresting, because that's the beauty of public transit and why conservatives revile it, no?

We get off in "the loop," amidst the financial buildings, and our first sight is a Kandinsky mosaic that wraps around four giant walls, with an army of smokers smoking their breakfasts out front of it, not one vaping, either.

We visit the building of the old central library, the turn-of-the-century kind with handcrafted masonry, stained-glassed ceilings, and inscriptions throughout that pay homage to literature—the sort that will never be built again, since today's robber barons are mentally bankrupt, and illiterate.

We take in an entire room dedicated permanently to Keith Haring and his street art in Chicago, as well as a temporary exhibit by Alexis Rockman on the state of the Great Lakes.

"Cascade," oil and alkyd on panel, 72" x 144"
It's my first time seeing Rockman and my immediate thought is, yup, this is the correct way to do nature/Americana/Canadiana today.

From here we head to the mirror-blob sculpture, which doesn't do much for me but prompt me to take a selfie and think I'm wonderful. We then sit to watch the Chicago philharmonic rehearse outdoors in the concert hall built by that overrated starchitect, Frank Gehry.

Lunch in Chinatown, and more unplanned chitchat along the way and in the restaurant, with a young woman who has just moved to Chicago from Nashville, "where there are not so many Chinese but lots of cowboys."

For the rest of the day, we pilgrimage to the current central library, which is as spectacular as the old one, not Gehry, not cold and academic, at all.

We stare at the exposed overhead subway lines for at least an hour, plugging our ears each time a train passes.

Finally, we visit the site of the Haymarket riot, which led to the hanging of several socialists and anarchists because an unknown source detonated a bomb and killed seven policemen, back in 1886.

By the way, it's due to Haymarket and subsequent struggles connected to it that May Day exists (at least outside of North America) and for a while, more than today's privileged few anyhow, had an eight-hour workday.

I gotta say, I'm disgruntled to find simply a sculpture and tiny plaques from unions around the world affixed to it, and the supposed long-term plans for a "Labor Park" in evidence nowhere, but maybe not surprised. The location is banal and difficult to find, too.

Tomorrow, central Michigan for a last night of camping and then Ontario, land of confused voters who for some reason want more America.

June 27, 2018

L.A. to Toronto Roadtrip Notes: Day 9 and 10, Nebraska and Iowa

We see Nebraska and Iowa mostly at 80 m.p.h. on the I-80, so it's a condensed and truncated view at best.

Geographically, the skies are as vast as they say and the fields of corn and cattle pasture a never-ending emerald smear.

It's dangerous to generalize but the people seem humbler, as if they haven't forgotten what community is and the small rituals required to maintain it. I go for a run to shake off the car legs and every single person I pass says hi. No one wears sunglasses and there doesn't seem to be a gym or organic grocer in sight.

Of course, these same friendly folk voted overwhelmingly for Trump, at least outside of Lincoln, Omaha, Des Moines, and the other major cities (though curiously, they aren't as in your face with the flag and make America great garbage as Californians).

Then going on the leaflets in rest stops and every billboard trying to pull you into a local source of pride, they're smitten with Lewis and Clark, the Mormon trail, the California trail, pioneers, and every other force of Manifest Destiny, to the expense, I would say, of other histories.

I did a little research and found that at one rest stop outside of Omaha, on the Big Blue River, a tornado hit the camp of Standing Bear and the Ponca tribe in 1877, killing Standing Bear's daughter. The tribe it turns out was heading for Oklahoma because white settlers had dispossessed them of their land in Nebraska, and along the way a quarter of them died. When they tried to return to their homeland two years later, soldiers from Fort Omaha arrested and imprisoned them on the very spot on the Big Blue where we stopped.

Standing Bear would fight his imprisonment and eventually win. The ruling was the first time in U.S. history "that an Indian was a person within the meaning of the law," explained a plague, at the end of a path behind other plaques honouring American soldiers who fought in Vietnam, the sacrifices made by pioneers to break the land, and something about Purple Hearts, in case your patriotism was beginning to waver.

In Iowa, we stop on the eastern extent of the state, just across the Mississippi from Illinois, in Davenport. It's pouring rain but we make an effort at least to see the Mississippi, which is an inch or two from overflowing its levees. It's the first time we've seen the huge river, as vital as it is to the settlement of North America (just take a look at this map of light pollution, with the Mississippi splitting the two distinct zones). The river makes a big impression.

Downtown Davenport, meanwhile, feels like the rust belt, or the outer fringes of it anyway, a little like Southern Ontario. Rough but homey. We J-walk for the first time not worried that a cop will arrest us. And we stand in centre medians while cars keep going right by, not confused in the least at the sight of pedestrians.

June 26, 2018

L.A. to Toronto Roadtrip Notes: Day 8, Tundra

We leave our campsite on the sunnier west side of Rocky Mountain National Park and drive east along the U.S.'s "highest paved road," directly over the peak of the cordillera, not knowing what to expect, nor having read much about it.

Soon we hit Milner Pass at the Continental Divide, where the water of the Americas splits east and west.

Up there we see elk with "huge racks," a guy with binoculars and fingers that look used to pulling triggers tells us, and longhorn sheep clinging to cliffs, though too far away to really see well.

Above us, in the peaks, is snow, "but I don't think we'll get anywhere near it," I announce.

In the backseat, the kids read a pamphlet and inform us of the various regions—montane, subalpine, alpine—just as we pass from one to the next. Quickly we hit the tree line. "Okay, maybe we will see snow."

We keep ascending. The treeline passes and we definitely see snow. In fact, it starts to snow. We get out and climb a peak to 12,000 feet. Grey clouds swirl. A marmot shuffles by. It's hard to breathe, and we're freezing in shorts. One daughter declares that she hates the tundra, right after she trips on a rock and falls. But the mountain flowers are an inspiration, and the view is exquisitely, superlatively exciting.

On the way down the western side, it storms, with wind so strong it feels like our car will pull a Dorothy. The temperature drops to 6 Celsius according to our car thermometer, which I bang, like  Fonzie, convinced it's broken.

We're supposed to camp in Lake Ogallala, Nebraska, but decide instead to book a night in a motel. Oh, it's glorious, and we spend the rest of the day reminiscing on why.

Some of the things you take for granted when you're camping:
  • Walls that insulate you from rain, cold, noise (especially hillbilly rock and the air brakes of big rigs), and pesky animals
  • Breakfast you can make in under an hour without throwing out your back
  • A shower
  • Warm water and a sink in which to wash dishes
  • A toilet that isn't a five minute walk away up a hill and over a rocky path, without trip lines from tents that cause your kids to fall and cry
  • Lights that turn on with the flick of a switch, so you don't stub your toes looking for a flashlight
  • A fridge not just to cool your food but store it, rather than have to string it up a tree because of scavengers with fangs
  • A mirror that isn't a dented piece of metal affixed to the wall, even if looking at yourself while camping may not be the best decision
  • A proper soft, dew-free, debris-free bed, with no insects in it
  • Kids that don't look feral
  • Not seeing white families with deluxe RVs and a Walmart of goods try to recreate the suburban homes they've just left behind for a few days
Tomorrow, Omaha!

June 24, 2018

L.A. to Toronto Roadtrip Notes: Day 7, Rocky Mountain

We stay put today. It's hovering around the freezing point when we wake up, but Rocky Mountain National Park north of Denver, one of the oldest national parks in the U.S. is too sublime to leave right away.

We spend the day hiking up East Inlet Falls to Lone Pine Lake, or at least close to the lake before we fizzle out, some 9 miles and 2000 feet of elevation climb.

We see lots of scat, fly fishers in meadows, trees chewed by mountain pine beetle, and Texans.
Sunburnt and destroyed at the end, we find a library in nearby Grand Lake with amazing chairs to snooze in.

In the evening, we attend a ranger talk on bears and the ranger gets the kids to hold up a grizzly pelt with a huge head and long fangs for the audience. Bears, if you didn’t know it, are wily suckers. They have elephant memories and noses that can smell five miles away, maybe that sandwich you’re eating right now. But if you string a scary Halloween figure that shakes or glows on your dumpster, they get scared and run away.

L.A. to Toronto Roadtrip Notes: Day 6, Colorado

Fandango doesn't make it. The desert proves too hot for a freshwater crayfish.

Before leaving Moab, we bury him under a mulberry tree, all teary eyed, glum. The orange crustacean has been with us for almost two years. We talk about how we'll miss his Popeye eyes, the way he scratched at the side of his Tupperware box when he was hungry and could see we were eating at the table, and how he came out of his favourite plastic bowl when we put classical music on or played the violin.

For the rest of the day, we drive, drive. It's our longest stretch so far, 325 miles.

Initially, Colorado doesn't look too different from Utah, till you hit the Rockies and start to ascend. The surroundings change from desert to alpine in a matter of an hour.

On Interstate 70, we cross through Glenwood Canyon, a feat of highway engineering that rivals, for us, Autostrada 10, which hugs the Mediterranean through Liguria past Genoa. Both snake through narrow tunnels on improbable ribbons of road, like roller coasters, passing incredible scenery. 

By the time we reach Stillwater Campground on Lake Granby, close to where the Colorado River starts, the temperature has dropped to 7-8 degrees Celsius. Mountain chickadees come chirping around. Chipmunks. And it starts to feel more like being in Toronto in late autumn, only we're surrounded by mountains.