June 6, 2002
When people ask me where I am from, I tell them that I grew up in Los Angeles and lived there for twenty six of my thirty five years. Like many who feel a sense of pride about their roots, I used to be proud of my Angelino heritage. It made me feel sophisticated and cosmopolitan. This feeling was recognizable even when I was a young boy.
During some summers when I was young my mother and father would send me to stay with her parents in the Massachusetts town of two thousand in which she grew up. I stood apart from my small town cousins who seemed to me very homogenized and simple. Even my aunts and uncles seemed shallow to me. I never felt arrogant, rather I felt a sense of obligation to be more considerate towards them as an adult might feel towards a child. Oddly enough, my “country mouse” relatives reinforced this feeling of mine as they issued to me a heavy helping of dignity. I entertained them with fast talk of tall tales steeped in urban legend. And unlike the fractured extensions of that family tree, I felt welcomed by each branch; I felt like a diplomat.
As a young man, I spent several years in the Armed Forces and was afforded the opportunity to become acquainted with every type of American imaginable. From Bronx dwellers who had only seen grass on television, to farmers who hadn’t experienced a paved road before their teens; from Inuit fisherman to silver-spooned Academy grads, the military was for me the real American Melting Pot. Additionally, during my years in the service I lived in several geographies abroad including Western Europe and the Middle East. Still, my Angelino air gave me a unique presence nearly everywhere I went. The only people who were not fascinated by my Los Angeles-ness were those chip-shouldered New Yorkers and the confederate sympathizing drill instructors (DI) who would tease, “A California boy, eh!? You a homo, Airman Morales? ‘Cause the only things in California is [sic] picnicers and dick lickers. You aint got no picnic basket with you, do you? Oh, wait, they got steers and qweers in California, too, but you don’t got no horns, either.” Oh, I have horns alright, but the legal superiority over me that the DI’s enjoyed shielded them from those horns. The feeling that Los Angeles was a special place, “The new Rome,” as my father puts it, and my specialness by association, persisted about one after I returned from that six year tour of duty.
Something had changed, perhaps it was I; but the city had changed as well. Traffic was significantly more dense, the summers were perceptibly hotter, the air noticeably more polluted. I stayed there four years after returning home from the service, plotting my escape shortly after experiencing a nearly homicidal level of irritation. That rat race, that maze of concrete, that life–all were unnatural. That existence was smothering my soul and I longed for a return to Eden.
It was the handful of weeks spent in rural Massachusetts as a boy, outside of the urban sprawl of Southern California, that reinforced my innate sympathy for the natural world–the world of tree-lined meadows, fresh air and undomesticated animals. My days in that environment were filled with wonder and peace. Swimming in the pond which my grandfather and I fished from for dinner, eating salads made from my grandmother’s vegetable garden, and walking barefooted through the woods in which we fell trees to maintain the fences and buildings gave me the missing connection to the land–to the earth; a physical connection and exemplary of the concept of synergy: cooperative interaction among groups that creates an enhanced combined effect.
I recall having an awareness of nature as an active power–as God. This contrasted significantly from the God I was expected to praise by my conservative, Catholic grandparents with whom I stayed. But their God, the one who lived in that little golden box behind the altar, the one mediated by the priests, wasn’t as present as my God. And certainly their God didn’t show himself to be concerned with me as an individual, unlike my God who one day sizzled by back with second degree sunburns sending me to the hospital with a fever of 104º. My God issued to me instant retribution for the countless black ants I fried with grandmother’s magnifying glass that day.
Around this time I recall watching on television the Walt Disney version of Mark Twain’s, Tom Sawyer. Disney’s film starred the young Jonnie Whitaker. My resemblance to that bushy-haired red head was remarkable; and, it may come as no surprise that I attempted to sail across Box Pond, that summer, with a raft I built from small logs bound with twine. And if I was Tom Sawyer, certainly the elderly neighbor’s grandson, Henry Sneeden, was Huck Finn. Henry was slightly older and wiser, but more significant, as knowledgeable about the wilderness as Daniel Boone. Henry and I engaged in real adventure unlike anything I could experience in the city. Adventure in the city was unlike the fantasy adventures Henry and I would pursue. I always had a notion that adventure in L.A. could get me kidnapped, killed, or at least mugged, where as adventure around Box Pond, at its worst, might mean a nasty case of poison ivy or an attack by swarming yellowjackets. I survived both.
One day Henry asked me if I knew how to hunt turtles. “Snapping turtles,” I asked? “Of course,” he replied matter-of-factly. Then he took me around to the back of his grandparent’s cottage where there was a large plastic wading pool that belonged to his baby sister. Inside was the largest snapping turtle I had ever seen by no less than five times. Its shell was the size of a small trash can lid, its tail like a large carrot. But most impressive was its head with the beaked mouth that could remove a lime-sized chunk of meat from anything in its range. Henry distracted it with his left arm–still in a cast from an earlier misadventure–then grabbed the turtle’s tail. Hoisting it above the pool, he proudly displayed his living trophy. It must have weighed fifteen pounds. Though thoroughly impressed, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the turtle. Sure, snapping turtles frightened me and made swimming in the murky pond risky, but this turtle was an individual and capable of feelings and suffering; as it seemed to be while hanging from its tail. I declined to learn the art of turtle hunting.
An avid collector of insects and amateur entomologist, I enjoyed the rich source of creepy crawlies in the New England wilds. One day I spied a HUGE, silvery-gray spider crawling along the ground. I quickly found a jar and captured it. Pondering it’s fate, I decided I would euthanize and mount it for display.
Knowing that alcohol tended to dry out the insects, I decided not to submerge the creature in, but instead to asphyxiated it by placing an alcohol-soaked paper towel in the jar with it. After a few minutes, the spider was overcome and I began to prepare a surface on which to mount and display it.
I found a nice piece of cardboard, cut it into an eight by ten inch rectangle and framed it with mitered, wood half-rounds. I then carefully removed the spider from the jar, outstretched its death-curled legs, and by placing a drop of super glue on the end of each, fixed its legs to the cardboard surface. It was spectacular, and so I hung it on the wall in my bedroom like the caribou head in the parlor from one of Grandfather’s manly hunting trips.
That night I starred admiringly at my trophy. But was it fatigue, or some other eye anomaly that was making the spider appear to be moving? I shook my head like they do in the movies, but the spider continued to dance in crazed, surreal spasms . Something had to be done. God was telling me that this spider survived my terror and must therefore be set free. From where this ethic was founded I do not know; but, it made sense to me.
Though my intention was noble, in my attempt to rectify my misdeed, I accidentally inflicted the cruelest fate possible on the poor arachnid when I whittled the cardboard away as closely to its feet as possible in order to set it free. I recall my own psychological agony as I watched it clumsily run away into the woods on slippery, cardboard shoes. That was the only incarnation of a shoed spider, not unlike the ubiquitous cartoons of spiders with striped sneakers, I have ever seen. For inflicting this suffering on that noble creature, I felt like such a failure as the world had never known before this.
I’ve always been fond of frogs. Growing up with Kermit, how could I not? Sometimes a frog would venture away from the pond and near the house where I would catch and examine it before letting it go. In an effort to fondle a frog at my will and not by chance, I would frequently try to catch them in the water. Anyone who’s tried this knows it’s nearly impossible. But one day I made a curious discovery: green frogs seemed to be attracted to fluttering leaves. This gave me an idea.
I took a fishing pole and on the hook fastened a small, green leaf. Mimicking a butterfly in flight, I dangled the setup over an area of grass on the pond’s bank. Within moments, I had frogs hoping to try to catch the elusive object. It was a glorious moment of man’s triumph over nature! I was quite proud of myself until one frog actually succeeded in grabbing the leaf–hook and all. A shock of fear zapped me: what would I do now that Kermit’s cousin was dangling from my line by his speared tongue? Reeling in the catch, I grabbed the frog and tried to free it from the hook. In doing so, I ripped and mangled its delicate mouth. Its blood was on my hands and stained my heart.
The summer of fried ants, tortured turtles, shoed spiders and ripped frogs mouths had changed my paradigm. From my guilt grew compassion and from my psychical connections to all of these and other creatures was borne the panthiest in me. Through that series of misdeeds I was converted to an eleven year old altruist. And with rare exception, have remained so ever since.
Moving from Los Angeles to Portland five years ago was very beneficial for me. The Pacific Northwest is much more environmentally minded than Southern California. But the forces of evil, those that continue to neglect and ruin the planet through the greedy acquisition of wealth, seem omnipotent. I believe that arrogance plays a major part in this “evil doing.”  President Bush issued the term evil doers to what he calls, “The Axis of Evil.” (Afghanistan, North Korea and Iraq). It is interesting to invoke, rhetorically, a detective’s rule of thumb: the person who identifies the body or reports the crime is the first suspect. Even kids know this when the discovery of flatulence is announced, “Smelt it dealt it.” Arrogance supplants trust in the world which we were born of. Faith, not in nature, but in a modern, western, rational science that will answer every question and solve every problem, is the weak foundation on which rests a false confidence of control. This control is invoked to bring about comfort. Comfort, it seems to the modern man, can only be found in the artificial, man-made world of poly-fibers, wireless communication, and all-wheel drive. Discomfort is found in creepy insects, poison ivy and dirt.
So how do we protect ourselves from these discomforts? We pave it all over with concrete. Concrete becomes the literal act of creating a barrier between us and the world of discomfort–the natural world. But pavement isn’t free. We are a part of a global economy so participating in the movement towards comfort becomes participation in the world market. And through some mystical transformation, the pursuit of comfort–formerly shelter, warmth and dryness, and ease of transportation–becomes status–Pottery Barn, Banana Republic, and BMW.
Anthropocentrism is the term used to describe the tendency for people to consider humans as superior to all other forms of life. My work as a visual artist is sourced in a deep despair over this actual and ideological act of separation from the natural world by the ignorant, short-sighted, and all-too-common notion of human superiority. I feel like a child might, who, in a crowd, has been swept up, unbeknownst to his parents, and whisked away by a band of gypsies. Kicking, screaming, and all the while crying, I resist and lament this separation from my Motherly planet. But my efforts seem futile against the omnipotence of an economically motivated patriarchy, that willingly, through our participation–our “patronage”–sweeps us all up, divides us, and fuels many destructive passions; racism is one, feminism another. For, while the black man fights with the white man over racial equality, while she argues with he over gender equality, all are divided, and none united to fight the real enemy that can be found in our chosen code of ethics. It is because I don’t subscribe to this anthropocentric morality–one that supports the unchecked and greedy accumulation of wealth over other values of sustainability–that often I feel alone in opposition to this capitalistic society.
I approached this first year in art school quite academically. My intention was to begin, through practice and instruction, a mastery of the craft of painting. With no intention of painting “meaningful” works of art, my focus instead has been on developing the techniques of my chosen craft. Plausible theory, but like the baby who learns to stand upright, automobility is much too enticing to ignore. So, sooner than anticipated, I’ve begun to address the vital concerns mentioned above. The result so far has been the eight paintings and four sketches accompanying this narrative. They can be divided into three groups: the Ideal, the Real and the Allegorical.
The four painted works representing the Ideal are titled, Family Trees, Marvin’s Garden, Moonscape, and Waiting. They are all painted from life, with a minor augmentation to Marvin’s Garden in the form of the female figure in the foreground later executed in my studio. These works represent the Ideal because each scene is chosen for its idyllic nature, free of any man-made influences, free from irony, and is painted with the intention of commemorating the beauty of the land around us through the ingredients of intense and muted colors, sunlight and shadows, complex simplicity, and mystery. But more importantly to me, each serves to record my psychic state through a parallel visual language used to describe the scene. Mostly, this is achieved through my selection of the scene itself, as well as the specific formula of those ingredients just inventoried.
I don’t have much to say individually about these works as they are intended to speak for themselves. The process is quite meditative: I attempt to focus on the act of painting what I see at the exclusion of all other mental awareness. However, it is impossible to separate the artist’s psychology from the imagery; therefore any interpretation beyond the immediately discernable is enthusiastically encouraged. The only exception to this strictly automatic process is Marvin’s Garden which, due to the addition of the nude figure, undeniably has a more conscious motive. Unfortunately, that motive is unknown to me at this time.
The next group of images are categorized as the Real. I refer to them as such because, though they are intended to demonstrate the beauty of the natural world around us, there is also the inclusion of societal references. Additionally, these differ from the Ideal works because they are intended, either subtly as in the case of Onement, or heavy-handedly as in the case of the other three, to demonstrate, with no room for oversight, the ills of our deeds to the earth.
Litter was painted with the specific intention of recording,in an ironically beautiful and artistic manner, the incomprehensible act of grounding, scuttling, then abandoning half of the 639 foot steel freightliner, the New Carissa, that now rests permanently on the beach near Coos Bay, Oregon. The most bitter irony of this situation was my discovery of an official sign, undoubtedly posted on the beach long before the wreckage, that states, “Littering is a crime and is subject to a maximum $1000 fine and six months in jail.” The radical in me would like to provoke the State by intentionally discarding an aluminum pop can in plain sight of a law enforcement officer, with the intention of becoming arrested, simply to demonstrate the reality that citizens of this nation are given much less consideration than large, profit motivated corporations.
There is another composition related to this scene that has yet to be painted. Hopefully, after this careful study from life, I will be able to execute an even more poignant composition that currently resides in my head. The source for this next work is a photograph I took of the New Carissa from a half-mile away. That photo, which has yet to be developed and printed, caught the ship and its detached crane tower engulfed in a misty fog. Due to the distance and diffusive effects of the fog, the crane tower unmistakably resembled the buried Statue of Liberty in the closing scene of the 1968 film, Planet of the Apes. I am anxious to begin work on this powerful piece as it will more clearly articulate the ideological damage by this awful act of negligence.
The sketches for the as yet unpainted, Clean-Cut Pastor with Parish and Buster’s Last Stand were partially made from life. In Clean-Cut Pastor with Parish, we see a well-groomed pastor proudly standing before his church. In the background are rolling hills of clear-cut woods. This image was recorded as I saw it while passing through a small logging town on the way to Coos Bay. Imagine my shock when I noticed three solitary trees left standing on the top of the hill recalling the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves. It was strangely surreal for me to behold this scene. It is even more strange to ponder the wisdom of a small community, a church even, that supported the annihilation of that non-renewable resource. With regard to the ecosystem that once flourished in those wilds, the hills are comatose for decades to come.
In a not too distant town from the one mentioned above, I passed another area of clear-cut. This one had a mill on the accessible portion of the acreage called, Buster’s Millworks. As I drove past, I noticed a middle aged man working in the yard. I stopped and asked the man for directions to the nearest cafe. As he approached my vehicle, it took all the self control I had not to visibly react to his horribly obvious hair implants. The scene inspired Buster’s Last Stand which shows the man, Buster, sporting his badly executed and incomplete hair implants. In the background is a clear-cut landscape with a small stand of trees remaining which are visually linked to the remaining portion of Buster’s head that has yet to be augmented with implanted human hair. I hoped to convey the retarded notion that a man would actually cut his trees down for the purpose of financing a hair implant procedure. In the venerable words of Mark Twain, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
I refer to the final group of works as the Allegorical. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “allegory” as: The representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form. Though abstract, the idea behind each of these works is not complex. I have taken real landscapes and augmented each with an inclusion of simple, geometric forms relating to modern man’s rational conquest of the natural. I’ll describe each in detail beginning with the latest called, Cemetery.
In this allegorical painting we see the pleasantly rolling hills of a green landscape serviced by the sunshine of a blue sky with scattered, high-altitude clouds. The closer of the two visible hillsides is dotted with rectangular shapes resembling tiny buildings, or grave markers, loosely conforming to a rationalizing grid in perspective. The distant hillside is also augmented with similar-looking shapes, though not in a rational sequence.
It is my intention that the distant shapes recall the stumps that litter the landscapes of local clear-cut forests. The verisimilitude of the two hills suggests that society is reaping that which we sow: death. I’ve chosen to soften the blow, or in the language of the visual arts, create a “delayed response” to the heavy theme depicted by rendering the landscape with warm, bright, pleasing colors.
In Counting the Costs of Material Gains there is a similar aesthetic, only the structures–a factory, a corporate headquarters, and particularly the house–are more developed, though remain stylized to resemble the plastic game pieces found in popular board games such as Monopoly and The Game of Life. This picture was composed from an amalgam of scenes sketched separately from life then unified in painted form on the canvas. As in Cemetery, ambiguity surrounds the building on the left in that we are not sure if it is in fact a building or a stele. The use of a semi-arbitrary scale and perspective aide in this achievement.
Unlike Cemetery, this landscape is blanketed with a gray, overcast sky. I’ve used this device to symbolize the depression I often experience surrounding the topic. In fact the use of gray unifies the man-made elements of the painting with the exception of the red door to the house which, through its contrast with the green landscape, symbolizes modern man’s choice to dissociate from the natural world. The house also sports a set of walls–isolating structures–reinforcing the idea that this dweller does not want a connection to the world outside. The last detail of the house worth mentioning is the façade that fronts it alluding to the superficiality of the suburban lifestyle.
In the back of the scene is a factory which symbolizes the industry that supports consumerism. The factory is located on a once serene island refuge. Placing the factory on an island creates a sense of isolation, or detachment, suggesting that it is untouchable. Additionally, the location–adjacent to a waterway as most factories were in the beginning of the industrial revolution–allowed me to subtly assert the pollution that permeates such enterprise: not only does the factory belch toxins into the air above, but discharges waste into the water downstream.
The last structure, through its blatant phallic form, symbolizes the corporate patriarchy that controls the scene from on high. In a dimly lit window near, but not at the top, is the suggestion that a person is working hard to ascend that system through long hours. This alludes to the age-old notion that through hard work, one will be rewarded by promotion. Unfortunately, that promotion is upward mobility through a system that is hollow, thus meaningless. How have I asserted that the wanted promotion is meaningless? The shadow that extends from the building toward the foreground figure suggests that the person working late is the figure who projects the ghostly fantasy of her own idyllic, pastoral life of leisure and simplicity. That the light in the office is blue underscores the worker’s despair over the system which she tries so hard to ascend.
Another–forgive the pun–concrete symbolic device is the paved walkway which compositionally connects the house and factory yet excludes access to the office building. The pavement ends at the house which suggests that there is no escape from the life of toil. The small, paved strip that accesses the building on the left, through its disconnection from the paved strip on the right, suggests that these two worlds, the white collar and blue collar systems, are mutually exclusive. And though each caste is separate, both are the same in that their participants are trapped in a closed system of hollow, if any, reward. Lastly, like the rectangular structures in Cemetery, the building can be interpreted as a stele, or the more macabre association with a grave marker. – This device quite simply symbolizes the spiritual death of the participants in our economy of consumerism.
In most suburbs, tree-lined residential streets are a symbol of pride and achievement. Developers of neighborhoods recognize the comfort and beauty of trees through their copious and rhythmic addition to their developments. Yet, the felling and sale of trees for profit is the act of a system inconsiderate of spiritual and universal connectivity. The hypocrisy of the system that supports these mutually exclusive values is the subject of the as yet incomplete composition entitled, Shady Lane. This painting will serve to question the value of trading trees for cash. In Shady Lane I critique the practice of felling for profit by proposing the preposterous notion of homeowners felling and selling the trees of their neighborhood–the trees that symbolize the pride of community. This is an allegory of spiritual and psychological castration.
The last work in this oeuvre is called Point of No Return. The composition in its final and painted form will feature a single, branchless, dying tree of modest size. On the ground between us and the tree is a broken branch sporting a green leaf. This leaf, detached from the tree, is symbolic of the deathly detachment of us from our source–the earth. Conspicuously in the shadow of the now dead tree is a figure, intentionally male, who links the death of the last tree in an otherwise dead and barren landscape, to the patriarchal western culture. This figure is obviously sobbing over the loss as one might who has, in a fit of rage or temporary insanity, killed a loved one but now faces the reality, and thus the irreversible consequence, of his horrible deed. The discarded suitcase makes the connection of this figure to the modern world of economic globalization. This painting will be, by far, the most poignant of the series as it undeniably thrusts the figure’s lamentation onto the viewer who cannot deflect the potent message. The title of this work, Point of No Return, alludes to the rapidly approaching moment in time where our history, even our very presence, will inevitably cease to exist. Some modern environmental scientists believe that we have as little as thirty years, one generation, to change our self-destructive practices. 
The history of landscape painting is rich with spirituality, allegory and mysiticism. I believe I have been successful, thus far, in continuing the long tradition of affirming the power and glory of the natural world as well as our responsibility to it. Through this written explanation of the work and the history behind its sources, I have illuminated the motivations for such an emotional plea to my fellow citizens. We cannot continue to abuse this planet if we wish to avoid the fate of my sobbing man in Point of No Return.
Like the Anthroposophists, I believe that man, like the rest of the natural world, once lived in spiritual harmony with the rest of the universe but has fallen into the inferior state of rational consciousness. This belief of mine is constantly reaffirmed when I return to the wild through back-country packing and other minimal existence experiences when deep in the wilderness. I also believe that we have a responsibility to, if not reverse, at the very least stop the destruction of nature. We will never succeed in our semi-conscious attempt to transcend the natural world for our biology is too dependant on it. And it is my contention that we acknowledge, embrace and celebrate, instead of denying, rejecting and strangling this connectivity. The first step in this process of reclaiming our place in nature is to recognize and act on the nobility of all natural forms, individually and collectively. The experiences I earlier recalled, of summers in Massachusetts, have served as a continuos reminder to me that we are inseparable from the earth. Lucky for me, this is not an uncomfortable notion. But unlucky for me, it seems to be for most of the population–our society–on which I am dependent. I will close with one more brief recollection of that summer of 1977 at Box Pond.
One day my grand father was away felling trees with some other men. Most boys, myself included, consider lumberjacks to be “real” men. By virtue of not being invited to participate, I felt belittled by my grandfather. I decided to assert my manliness by felling a tree of my own. After acquiring an appropriate axe, I chose my victim. In true lumberjack fashion, the way my grandfather instructed me, I swung that axe with alternating upward and downward chops until a wedge was notch from half of its diameter. Starting again on the opposite side, I chopped repeatedly until finally I heard that unmistakable crack signaling that the tree was giving way to gravity. The tree didn’t quite fall where intended. In fact, though I understood the basic principle in directing a tree’s fall, in my haste and fear of discovery, I neglected to properly plan the event. Poetically, the ten inch diameter tree now rested on the neighbor’s outhouse. True to the frightened child I was, I ran home.
Though my grandmother later confronted me about the act, and I confessed to the ill deed without reservation, no form of punishment could have over-shadowed the guilt I felt for ending this innocent life with no gain beside the inflation of my weak ego. I considered this tree–like the frog, the spider, the turtle, and the ants I wronged earlier that summer–a life, a living entity with its own spirit and its own fate. This belief of mine demonstrates an early predilection toward altruism. Twenty four years later, I am repenting for my sin of the needless felling of that tree through this ongoing project entitled, Portraits of a Tree.
 George W. Bush on national television during an infamous address to Americans on the war against terrorism (date unknown).
 United Nations Environmental Project: Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) 3, 2002.