Thursday, March 10, 2011

Feb 20 began the Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Week 

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, by Leroy, oil on canvas  48x36"
Now that all the pictures I needed are here (Thank you Rick Womer),  I can describe the week's events that started on Feb 20th with the unveiling of my portrait of Harper, commissioned by the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia.  It was quite a week, and wildly special for me as an artist.  The portrait was used as a front page 5.5x7" four-color photo on the cover of 10,000 newspapers printed to announce the program "A Brighter Coming Day: Rediscovering Frances Ellen Watkins Harper."  My Artist's Statement was a column on page 2.  During the week the portrait was taken to The Pennsylvania Historical Society for a panel discussion about Harper, and again to Drexel University for a fascinating historical presentation by Frances Smith Foster of Emery University.  It will finally find its home in the Parish Room of the Unitarian Church.

The unveiling on the 20th began the morning church service, after a Call to Worship by Rev. Mark Tyler of the Mother Bethel AME Church - Harper had been a member of both the Unitarian and AME Churches.  After that the unveiling took place, to a satisfying chorus of ooohs and aaahs.

First, I spoke (briefly) about how the portrait was crafted

Then I had the honor of lowering the drape to reveal the portrait

Next on the agenda, Larry Robin spoke about his discovery of the importance of Harper in the movements for emancipation and women's suffrage.  Larry, through his Moonstone Arts Center had organized the week's events, gaining the support of eighteen local organizations to fund and promote the activities.

Larry Robin is a dynamo in the Philadelphia cultural scene
The following speakers focused on Harper's contributions in her time and the need to continue her work today, and the choir's contribution was equally moving.  And then as it seemed that things were wrapping up, the Church was stormed by the energy of the Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble who took over and rocked the rafters.

The African Dance Group, from Camden NJ, performs both locally and internationally

I'd met the spirited director of the dance group, Ronsha Dickerson, just at the time I was looking for a model to assist me in creating the portrait.  Her group was performing a Kwanzaa program downtown, and I was taken by her energy and her work with the kids of Camden.  Moreover, she had the body and skin color I was looking for, and she enthusiastically agreed to work with me for the portrait.

Rev. Nate Walker, Ronsha (with an initial study for the portrait) and The Artist
I was glad that my sister Arlene and her friend Dot could come in from Lancaster for the day, and of course Patricia, who had been supporting me throughout, and was deeply engaged in the process and the day.

Dot, my sister Arlene, Me, Patricia, and the Grump on the Wall

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Friday, February 04, 2011

Ellen Forney's In Town 

Just gotta take this post to be proud of my daughter, Ellen Forney: Cartoonist, Author, Professor (Cornish College), Painter and Illustrator.  She's in town (Philadelphia) from her Seattle home at the invitation of the Philadelphia Free Library to give a Workshop tomorrow, based on her art - 65 plates - in Sherman Alexie's book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  She also gave a presentation at the University of the Arts and another at her alma mater, Masterman High School.

Tirdad Derakhshani of the Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed her, and wrote a great article for the Magazine section of the Thursday Feb 3 Philadelphia Inquirer.  Hit the highlighted section to go directly to the article.  I wanted to include a picture or two from the article, but couldn't do it.  Sorry.

Ellen Forney in her previous apartment in Seattle

It's been a long time since she was in Philadelphia, and it feels so good to have her here again, and to share the good things we enjoyed in the city.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011


It's been about a year since I received a commission from the 1st Unitarian Church to paint a portrait of the suffragette/abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (b.1825 - d.1911).  Harper had been a member of both this Church and the Mother Bethel AME Church, here in Philadelphia. 

It took some time to complete the portrait, and then a series of things kept delaying its delivery and unveiling ceremony.  But now the date is firm:  Sunday Morning, Feb. 20, in a service that will feature Harper and her decendants, and include special choral music and also the Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble, who always give a fantastic performance.  That afternoon there will also be a concert at the Church by Sweet Honey in the Rock.  It will be quite a day!

I've wanted to share the Harper portrait on this blog ever since I finished it, but felt that it shouldn't be shown until the formal unveiling.  However, it is now the featured image on a newspaper brochure promoting a weeklong series of events, called:  A Brighter Day Tomorrow - Rediscovering Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, sponsored by 18 Organizations organized by The Moonstone Arts Center.  Some 10,000 copies have been printed and they are publicly available as of yesterday, so it seems that the wraps have been taken off.

Here then, is the Portrait.  I also was asked to write an Artist's Statement for inclusion in the newsletter.  It is awfully long to include in a blog but hey, this is a big deal for me, so I'll include it anyway. ( Nothing says you have to read it unless you want to.)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, by Leroy (oil on canvas, 48"x36")

Artist's Statement:

The objective of the portrait painter is not only to provide a likeness but to capture the personality and vitality of the subject.  A portrait is akin to meeting a person through a conversation rather than by merely looking a photograph of the person, accurate though that photograph may be.

In approaching the portrait of a living subject I first make several sketches.  This allows me to speak with and observe the subject over time, a process that continues throughout the development of the portrait.  Thus I come to know the subject through many mood changes - curiosity, interest, boredom, impatience, humor, and more.  Building on this background, the portrait becomes a composite that reflects all these intimacies within an authentic context, woven into the likeness of the subject.

Similarly with a historic figure such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the first step in creating her portrait a century after her death is to clearly recognize her uniqueness.  To accomplish this in her absence, I immersed myself in her writings, what has been written about her, the context of her life and times, and her calling. 

Harper (b.1825, d.1911) was a woman of unusual inner strength and vitality, proud and self-assured.  The first verse of her powerful abolitionist poem Bury Me in a Free Land begins as follows:
“Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or on a lofty hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.”

When she was 47, already a well-known national lecturer on abolition and suffrage, poet and author, she wrote in a letter to a friend:
“The other day I, in attempting to ride in one of the [Philadelphia] city cars, after I had entered, the conductor came to me and wanted me to go out on the platform.  Now, was not that brave and noble?  As a matter of course, I did not, but kept the same seat.  When I was about to leave, he refused my money and I threw it down on the car floor and got out, after I had ridden as far as I wished.  Such impudence!”

This then is the spirit and the fire that my portrait of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper needed to reveal.

How to begin?  Research at the Library Company of Philadelphia confirms that there are two photographs of Harper at maturity as well as one photograph and one etching of her as a young woman.  They have been reproduced in subsequent histories and essays, sometimes of doubtful quality.  But all of them portray a woman of great poise, dignity and determination.  

From these choices, the formal photograph taken for the frontispiece of her most famous book is the genesis for the portrait.  Specialists at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at Philadelphia University indicated that the photo dates to about 1895, and they shared with me dresses, fashions and photographs of the type a woman such as Harper would have worn.

In the photograph, Harper stands before a typical backdrop used for photography in this period, a scrim painted with classical columns and encircling vines.  Although these columns really have nothing to do with her life or work, they are suggest the formality that she would have desired for a public presentation, and represent the conventions of the period.  And so the columns are retained (minus the vines) in the portrait.

These choices were the easier ones.  A greater problem was find the correct way to  incorporate Harper’s character, and then to approximate her skin color when working only from black and white half-tone prints.  At this point another strong black woman, Ronsha Dickerson of the Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble, stepped forward and agreed to model in Harper’s posture.  So the final Harper portrait is based not only on the Frontispiece half-tone photograph, but also on multiple photographs and a study painting with Ronsha Dickerson for skin color and to observe how light falls on the chosen posture.

Final choices were compositional.  Harper is depicted as a mature woman, but at a somewhat younger age than the 1895 photograph.  She is leaning forward slightly with head high, and appears about to speak.  One hand rests on her best-known book, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, and her other hand is open in an attitude that welcomes the eye and beckons toward the book. 

It is indeed an honor to portray a figure such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.  May her memory and her concern for human rights and equality live on!

Leroy Forney  
February 20, 2011

With special thanks to:
First Unitarian Universalist Church and Rev. Nate Walker, for the Portrait Commission itself, and for their strong support throughout the development and presentation of this work.
Nancy Packer, Collection Curator, Philadelphia University, for her discussion and collected displays of the Leg of Mutton sleeve and Pigeon-Breast bodice.
Dilys Blum, Curator of Costume and Textiles, Philadelphia Museum of Art, for providing photographs and historical context for fashions of the late 19th century.
Ronsha Dickerson and the Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble for their inspiration and assistance.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

More Small Paintings 

I've made a bunch of new "speed paintings," maybe better called Quick Studies.  An interesting thing about these little (6x8") paintings is that they feel so free and easy.  They really are like making studies or sketches for a larger work.   But some of them, more than I would have expected, turn out to be interesting on their own right.  And it is an easy way to try things out before using them in a large scale painting.  As Nancy Bea Miller suggested, I've come to of think of them rather like a musician doing scales to maintain technique and skill, and maybe try some different fingering in the process.

Mike:  Painted during a Plastic Club workshop
The channel behind Dave & Sandra's cottage in Oklawaha

The dock at Lake Oklawaha

What could be a more common subject for a Still Life than apples?

This was another exercise in painting cavities - and metallic surfaces.

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Friday, December 17, 2010


Two months since my last posting?  Well, I've been in China for most of that time, and I have done quite a bit of new painting there.  Also, I learned a lot more about contemporary Chinese painting, and I expect to write about that and give some talks on it before too long.  But I have more organization to do to organize, write, and edit before I pontificate.

So I'll digress for a moment, to share some painting I've done quite recently, since my return to Philadelphia.  I attended a delightful two-workshop Speed Painting program offered by Nancy Bea Miller at the Main Line Art Center.  Nancy set up little scenes (still lives, really) of one or a few objects, and then had us paint them, with a one-hour time limit.  It was a great exercise in that it forced me to use bigger brushes than usual, and immediately concentrate on blocking-in the larger color areas.  Most importantly, it requires that you work quickly to not dwell on the details.  So here are the results of the program - better results than I'd have expected for paintings done against a time clock:

It was easy to get the shapes, but fun to work out the differing texture of "lemon" and "corks:"
Pomegranates were common enough in China, but I didn't paint them there.  (6x8")  This one has ended up as a Christmas gift to my sister Arlene
I haven't often tried painting shiny, mechanical surfaces, but both these were fun to work on. ( 8x10"}  This one also ended up as a gift to a sister of mine, to Allegra.
 The cork was an attempt to really loosen up and let the edges smudge into the greater murk surrounding it.  (6x8") 
The vegetables were tricky: that is supposed to be a broccoli on the top, there.  (8x6")

Of course an orange is a classic painting subject, along with apples.  (6x8")
 The idea of these things is to think of them as STUDIES.  A quick way to try out stuff, and maybe provide a basis for a longer, more careful painting.  This way they don't have to be beautiful, or even successful, although some of them may (hopefully) turn out to be rewarding and pleasing in themselves.  Nancy claims that if you do one of these every day for a month, it will definitely push your painting forward, and improve your technique.  A lot of people do this, and there are passels of web sites dedicated to people doing a painting a day.

 I would like to keep doing studies this way - frequently at least, if not daily.  Probably not daily.  The first one I've done since the workshops is a honeydew melon, sliced.  Lord, just drawing that series of ellipses inside a circle was quite a challenge.  I think I will keep coming back to this "study" again and again:
The gradations of green in the melon are really subtle, and great to explore.  (6x8')

Friday, October 22, 2010

Painting in Beijing 

It hasn’t all been play and no work for me, here in Beijing.  I have done a little painting to keep in practice, and I expect to do more, although my hopes of painting with Hao Li haven’t taken shape just yet.  I’d brought along the sketches and photo I did of the gourmand sitting at the next table a couple of weeks ago at the National Portrait Museum in Washington.  Its been fun turning that into a small painting.

 Gotta love this guy.  He made the chair look so small!

 But my real intent was to paint a scene typically and recognizably Chinese.  I thought I would paint a produce market for its luscious rich colors, but they are so crowded that there is no working space.  So I ended up in an indoor market, painting a butcher stall with great hunks of hanging meat.  It turned out to be quite a challenge, and raised interesting issues.  Those hanks of meat have personality, meaning, and they are not happy to be there all dismembered and nude, sliced and mutilated unceremoniously.  That needed to come out in the painting, and made it all a very challenging exercise.

Indoor market on Chunxiu Lu (oil on canvas, 18 x27")

Now, if it all works out as planned, tomorrow I will be painting again with Hao Li.  That should be totally delightful, with none of the  issues lying under the surface as they seem to with the raw meat.

Hanging out at 798 

In the 798 Art District, the XYZ Gallery represents excellent artists and today I had an opportunity to share a delightful lunch with its curator, Catherine  Chen.  She speaks knowledgeably about Chinese contemporary art during the 90s, when the response to the Tienenmen Massacre prevented exhibition of contemporary art.  Her view is that while some artists who had established relationships did leave for the west (primariy Paris, London and New York), most remained in China.  Even without access to museums and public galleries, they continued to share and show their work privately.  She wouldn’t agree that artists “went underground,” because that has connotations of opposition or resistance that were not part of the scene.

She had a great story about her uncle, who was a working artist during the height of the Mao years.  She said he supported himself and his family with his paintings, but he painted only pictures of Mao.  But even more than that, he painted only at night out of fear that someone might see an uncompleted painting and say that he was making a bad painting to deliberately defame the Great Leader.

Chen’s XYZ Gallery is already set up for a sculpture exhibition, Sculptures from the Holy Land, of Jonathan Darmon.  It will feature graceful polished metal figures, parts of which can be moved to change the nature of the pieces – finally, sculpture that you are encouraged to touch and interact with!  I hope Matt and I can attend the  XYZ reception for the show, coming up very soon on Sunday, the 24th.

XYZ is also exhibiting very interesting paintings by Wang Zhidong.  They look layered and three dimensional, like a Jackson Pollock work - but they are not, they are thinly painted, with images that disappear into a blur as you move closer to the painting itself.  He certainly has a very noteworthy and unique approach to depicting the cityscape.  (And with the pollution level where it is in Beijing today, I think I know how he may have found this inspiration.)


 Catherine Chen and I share the spotlight with Wang Zhidong’s Memory 2, a large
recent painting (oil on canvas, about 6.5 x 7.5ft) that appeals to us both.

Catherine also introduced me to Sunlight, an artist with her own gallery in 798, the Season Pier.  Sunlight was/is a poet who does beautiful, gentle drawings (ink washes, really) on absorbent rice paper that complements the Chinese characters of her poetry.  These delicate images contrast with the strong, passionate oil paintings that she began about two years ago, and which seem out of character with her sensitive, soft nature and appearance.

Season Pier is a small gallery with a friendly staff  
and stunning art

Creating the ink washes requires a  precise and a very controlled hand, as the manner in which the ink enters and spreads into the absorbent rice paper is central to the image:

Sunlight creates the image first, which then inspires her poetry 

Two years ago Sunlight began making oil paintings.  She finds that with this medium she can release her passion and work wildly, rapidly, repeat and re-do until the image reflects the onslaught of the brush - in essence, the antithesis of the delicate ink washes:

It is in her oil painting that Sunlight expresses the force that drives her art

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