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Hi there, everyone.
It’s been one hell of a year so far.
I’m not talking about the ‘Rona, the fires, the hurricanes, the end of the world.
I’m sticking to art, with which I’ve been obsessed for many years, but none so much as this one. While the world has been busy destroying itself, I’ve been locked away in my house, making a mess of things.
So today I want to share with you five of my favorite pieces. And with each piece, I want to talk about how it came into being and what the painting means to me.
Painting # 1 – The Unheaven
It was a dark and stormy night. No really, it was. I’d just finished a long week of painting huge, complex pieces, and frankly I was worn out. You know that place your mind goes when you’ve hit a creative wall? Or really, a wall of any kind? Yeah. That’s where I was at. I was tired. I was dead.
To take a few days off, regroup, and come back to the canvas with a refreshed sense of inspiration.
But it’s funny how the universe works. Sometimes, while wandering the shadowed realm between exhaustion and furious self-examination, we stumble upon rare moments of insight. It happened to me that night. The windows and doors to my little house were wide-open, and the sounds of the night pouring in. My young son was fast asleep, and I, weary and wanting to rest, wandered blearily to my painting cabinet.
It was then a question struck me. What if…all our preconceptions set aside…the idea of Heaven isn’t what we think? What if Heaven is not what we want it to be? What if, instead of angels and sunshine, feasts and Valkyries, the afterlife is something else entirely?
Out came the reds, the bronzes, the blacks, the golds, and the muted ivories. Within a few hours, well past midnight, I’d manifested an alternate view of Heaven. It was a lonely place. A place of eternal waiting. A place in which the souls of the departed rested alone, longing for the Heaven they’d been promised in life.
It might be that you look at this piece and see nothing so deep. You might see just a tree, some curtains, a stony floor, and a horseshoe crab-looking moon thing. That’s fine by me.
But personally, I dreamed of a place in the afterlife none of us would ever dare anticipate.
And so it was – The Unheaven.
Painting # 2 – Grove of Many Moons
It was the opposite of a dark and stormy night… 🙂
Long after finishing The Unheaven, I awoke on a pleasant summertime Saturday. Again, the windows were open and the air flowing in, but this time the sunshine was glorious, and the rain entirely absent. It was the kind of morning everyone enjoys, even me, the dark Bob Ross. (Credit to Twitter for the cute nickname.)
For Grove of Many Moons, I created a background of greens and blacks, empty but for a few distant trees. The process took several hours, many of which were me waiting for the acrylic layers to dry in the sun. While soaking up the warm air wafting into my kitchen, I started thinking about the many phases of life, the many places we go not physically, but in our minds. And I pondered how, even though we may wander far and wide of where we intended to go, we always tend to return home. Home being our personal center, our individual sanctuary of thought and imagination.
We move in phases, we humans. We roam in our dreams. We change even as we remain the same. Our roots are our bodies, but our minds are as free as the wind, as limitless as the night sky.
In a way, we’re like the moon.
I finished this one late at night the next Sunday, but the weather never changed. It stayed warm and glorious until I was done. And then the rain arrived.
Painting # 3 – Furnace of the Fallen
Now let’s get dark again.
People who know me know I’m not a political or religious human. At all. What goes on in the larger world largely generally doesn’t concern me. If we as a people are going to thrive, destroy ourselves, or something in-between, it’s ultimately not up to me (or any one person.) That’s not to say I don’t care, just that I acknowledge my smallness. Like Carl Sagan said of humanity on Earth, the pale blue dot… ‘That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives … on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.’
Not being involved doesn’t mean I don’t notice things. And naturally, how I express and process the workings of the larger world is done on canvas. With paints. Usually dark colors.
And so arrived Furnace of the Fallen. This piece is how, for at least the space of one weekend, I imagined our future. The great dark towers of our vast, powerful cities, hollowed out and left to decay in shadow. The fumes of our manufactured world, choking out the sun. The blues and greens of nature, muted and turned to metal.
You get the point.
I’m not always a nihilist, but when I am, I paint it.
Painting # 4 – Moonbringer
What if we could close our eyes and go anywhere? Not just in our minds, but literally.
Where would you go?
What would you do?
Moonbringer came to life one evening when I was completely alone. My son was away, the music was softly playing (no midnight death metal-a-thon this time) and the ideas flowed like wine. I tried to think of a place I’d want to go, and of a means to get there. The idea of a portal and a fantastical forest immediately came to mind.
From the start, this large piece felt utterly fantastical. The color scheme, the twisty trees, the totems with runic writing…it all felt otherworldly. And on that night, otherworldly was exactly what I wanted.
Where would I go? Probably another planet.
What would I do? Probably wander the forest and look for food.
Of all the paintings from this year, Moonbringer was probably the one during whose creation I had the most fun. I really let my brush do as it willed. No rules. No structured plan. I really imagined myself leaping through the portal and into a world that hasn’t yet been discovered.
Painting # 5 – Seizing Heaven
What if every plant, tree, and blade of grass on earth reached not for the sun, but for something much higher?
This was the question I asked myself while creating one of my biggest ever pieces, Seizing Heaven. My state of mind on the morning I began work on it was focused. Typically, I’ll let the brush do what it wants, but with this painting I hunkered over the canvas for endless hours, obsessing over every detail, every pinprick of light, every shadow.
These trees aren’t just reaching for the light. They want to conquer it. Earthbound for millennia, they’re grasping skyward with glorious aim. They’re impeded by the wind, the clouds, and the sheer magnitude of the vast power for which they hunger.
But no matter. They, like so many living, breathing people, have a desire that is unquenchable.
The trees are us.
The great light in the sky? It’s the thing for which we all reach, whether a goal, a place, or a state of thought. It’s different for every one of us.
* * *
Hopefully you enjoyed this sliver of insight. I don’t always feel deeper meaning when I touch brush to canvas, but sometimes I do…and it overtakes me until I finish.
Until next time…
J Edward Neill
Alex O’Riley has always tried not to fit in.
In his simple life, at his tiny house, he paints quiet masterpieces while living as a hermit.
But with one phone call from a brash New York lawyer, Alex learns he’s inherited Castle Carrick, the grandest fortress in Northern Ireland.
At Carrick, strange and dark events begin to swirl ever closer to Alex, turning his hoped-for quiet life inside out.
Now he must decide: flee from Ireland and give up his inheritance…or embrace the dark power which compels him to paint wondrous, yet terrifying things.
There’s a book I want you to read.
It’s quick. It’s deadly. It’s dark.
Read it tonight. Review the ____ out of it tomorrow.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
With that said, single dad art-making ain’t always easy.
Almost six years ago, my son (the G Man) burst into my life. He was the Kool-Aid Man breaking through the brick wall of me. Upon his arrival, I prepared myself for sleepless nights, hours upon hours of crying, and the end of all my life’s plans. But as it turned out, none of that really happened. The G Man slept astoundingly well. He rarely cried. And as for my life’s plans, they turned off the path by a few degrees, but were hardly shattered.
But there were two things I didn’t count on. The first, me almost immediately becoming a single dad after G Man burst onto the scene. The second, finding out my son was also my best bro, my comrade-in-arms, and someone who never wanted to leave my side.
Which, as a writer, painter, and 1,000 mph blogger, wasn’t something I was fully prepared for.
Yeah…so…while it turns out my writing and painting didn’t slam to a halt, they changed. A lot. Let’s start by talking about sleep. As a young dad, I’d always had this notion that my son’s bedtime would be…oh I don’t know…8:30ish. Nah. Not so much. I admit when I meet other people’s kids, I’m alllllllll about them being in bed early. But with the G Man, I find myself allowing him to stay up late. Like late, late. So instead of waging war over arbitrary bedtimes, I dim the lights, turn on the music, and dive deep into conversations I never thought I’d have with a five-year old.
What will happen when the sun runs out of hydrogen to burn
Why didn’t Sauron from Lord of the Rings make a second One Ring
And why didn’t evolution grant sharks the ability to fly
And so the months went by. G Man turned 3, 4, and 5. 8:30ish bedtimes became 9:30ish. 9:30 became 10:30. Chunks of late-night time I’d once devoted to painting, writing deep, dark novels, and meditating morphed into something else, something just as sacred yet completely different. While I’d never judge other parents for putting their kids to bed early, I just couldn’t do it with the G Man. I begun to crave playing silly games, watching kids’ movies, and teaching him how to master Zelda – Twilight Princess. “I’ll just sleep less,” I told myself. “I’ll start writing at midnight. That’ll work. Right?”
Now don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all roses all the time. By staying up all hours with the G Man, my production eventually took a hard hit. I started writing fewer than half the words per night than I used to. I finished maybe four paintings per month instead of ten. My sleep suffered, not because of staying up late building Lego armies, but because I still pushed my output to punishing depths. I swore off sleep in favor of creating things. Later and later, I stayed awake each night.
But it turns out the human body has its limits. I couldn’t keep pace forever. My mind and my work begun to crumble. I suppose a more reasonable person might’ve said, “Hey, it’s ok. You’ve earned a break. Be at peace with creating less in favor of more face-time with junior.”
F that. I want it all. 🙂
There’s an everyday equation we all must follow in life. It’s something like X + Y + Z = 24 hours. X is made up of the stuff we have to do each day. It’s work, chores, commuting, and other obligations. X is the hardest to change. Most of the time, it is what it is. The weekday value of my X is approximately 13. That’s a lot, but I’m aware some people have it much worse. As for Z, it’s exactly what you think it is: sleep. Some people can get by on 4-5 hours. Others need 8-9. The more sleep one gets, the better one’s mind functions. Therefore, Z can directly influence the quality of the rest of the equation. My Z value is about 7 hours.
That means, on any given weekday, my X + Z value is somewhere in the 20 range.
Which means I have about 4 hours left over for Y.
What is Y, you ask? Y is free time. Y is options and choices. Y can be consumed by entertainment, exercise, planning fancy meals, et cetera. Or, as in my case, Y can be reserved for art. For writing. For creating. In any artist’s life, having a kid complicates the value of Y. It’s a complication I’m grateful for, and yet it remains. My single dad Y isn’t the same as a lot of other artists’ Y. Even when I’m free to embrace Y, I’m not really. G Man is always at my side, tugging, talking, wanting to listen to music together, needing to engage in conversation.
So I’ve made a compromise. During Y time, we paint together.
And if I need to write, he reads.
It’s a solution I stumbled upon about a year ago. And it was completely by accident. One day, as I tried to paint while G Man was discussing the anatomy of stumpy T-Rex arms, we stopped talking long enough for him to ask a simple question:
“Can I paint, too?”
Yes. Hell yes. In that instant, I became a tornado of movement, laying out a dropcloth, handing him a palette, splashing out some colors to paint with. It took a few times for him to acclimate, but after a few weeks – and ever since – he’s been a painting machine. He even painted the cover of one of my books. Yes…seriously!
The painting problem: solved. A full 1-2 hours every day of Y value: freed up.
But what about writing?
Figuring out a way to write during G Man’s waking hours was more challenging. And yet… The solution conveniently turned up mere months removed from the painting revelation. Four words: Goosebumps, Deep Space, and Ninjas. Into his hands, I poured R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books, National Geographic magazines with lots of Hubble deep space images, and that silly series of ninjas-in-the-6th-grade books. Boom. Just like that, my Y time was defragmented. My painting output doubled. My writing was back on track.
And at the same time, G Man’s creativity soared. His reading skills improved drastically. His paintbrush moved with a mind of its own. (Only two spills so far.) He started asking for quiet time instead of demanding father-son Lego time. I was able to earn a tiny slice of Y freedom without planting my kid in front of a TV or kicking him outside.
Parenting is hard. This, I understand. What works today for me (and everyone else) might not work tomorrow. Soon enough, things like Little League, sleepovers with friends, and learning to drive will force some Y time to become X time. Ultimately, whatever becomes of my freedom, however small the slice gets, I’m ok with it. Because I’ll only ever get one chance to have a five-year old punch a sombrero off my face.
And that’s pretty cool.
Here’s some of the stuff G Man allowed me to paint.
And here’s the book I finished on his watch.
This article is a mirror of my original Tessera Guild spot.