14 Jan Hind Paws Spinning & The Shih Tzus of Rubber Lips

I remade (for the second time this week) a drawing for the Art of Action, Schools: Inside Roof Trusses. A figure is prominently featured in this composition, and it took me a while to recognize that I needed a more simplified and brighter sky to make that figure stand out. I want to achieve an iconic form, not only representing a local carpenter, but also emphasizing the interrelation between all the key shapes throughout the visual design. In some ways, unlike my landscape paintings, I wanted less atmosphere dissolving the forms, and I also wanted to establish more clear, solid shapes defined by hard edges. But still the atmosphere seeped in, and softened, punctured several edges. Perhaps that will be an asset of having spent so many years painting outdoors; while I’m indoors painting a more intellectual idea, if it gets too precious or too contrived, I have no problems breaking it down with my imagination and with nature’s verve.

In the studio each morning, I feel a little bit like a dog upon first starting out on a walk, abruptly pausing to dig up the earth with my hind paws spinning, trying to initiate a cloud of dusty grass, ‘til off I go. Except unlike my sojourns in the grand outdoors, the shuffling and reordering of the lesser indoors is not quite the same for me. Not the idle pleasure of clearing a level place for my tripod easel, or hunting for flat rocks to prop up one of its legs; none of the meditative opportunities for connecting to something much greater then myself to help me transition into actually starting to paint. Though I love my studio, which I built out of the upper loft of a post-and-beam barn, its raftered cathedral ceiling, architectural details, and my walls of art are distracting! So I am trying to adapt to a new set of rituals required by painting indoors, such as moving tables, listening to music, and availing myself to a wide array of art books, prints, and my own piles of sketches to launch me into work.

Actually, having the flexibility to work just as comfortably indoors as outdoors has been a great yearning of mine. Setting up an outdoor studio day after day and battling the elements can be a Herculean task, and one that at times forfeits a greater need for reflection and refinement. I think my middle age is beginning to better prepare me for the possibilities of painting in a controlled environment then anything else.

However, I really do feel excitement about the great possibilities looming ahead from studio work. It will allow me to be more experimental with certain visual ideas driven by materials and techniques that my “oil painting machine ” prohibits. It will also require a certain level of trust as I strip away certain visual structures that I have grown accustomed to and come closer to an art form that is perhaps essentially linked to my human experience.

Also, after two months of scheduling and rescheduling, I finally had the chance to draw my neighbor who frequently drives past my house waving with four scruffy Shih Tzus barking hysterically out both cab windows. Born in late November of 1929 in Newport, Vermont, my neighbor cuts a formidable figure; when I first moved to Halifax ten years ago, he was afraid I might jump his bones and gave me the middle finger as he drove past me. But seven years ago when I trapped a fisher cat that had eviscerated my beloved dog Jamir, I called him to shoot the wild sniper that had killed my dog, and we have gotten along very well ever since. My neighbor has a deep, husky voice like that of his mother Malvina, and is a hard worker like his father Ovid, both of whom had unique names of which he is quite proud. Both of his parents made grain alcohol with a man named Valentine Russ, a red-headed carpenter, who made it in a pressure cooker along the shores of Lake Memphremagog. His father moved the family to Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1939. There, he worked in a bobbin mill.

From the age of eleven through sixteen, Rubber Lips, as he is known, worked for 35 cents an hour on a chicken farm. He spoke quickly and frequently about his years of hard work at various mills in central Massachusetts. “At age sixteen to eighteen, I was a trucker up in Whitinsville, Mass, driving bolster machine parts around the factory. At eighteen, I drilled holes in shuttles for a textile business.” His large blue eyes, magnified by his glasses, were full of animated expression as he peeled back memories that rolled freely off his magnificent white beard. He said, “I have a ‘Strong Back and Weak Mind’…I never had more then an eighth grade education!” Upon retirement in the mid-1980s, he was earning $18.50 an hour. In 1955, he joined the carpenters union, Local 107, in South Worcester; Rubber Lips said, “they had my hands over my head:” he specialized in installing drop-ceilings in numerous factories. He put ceilings in for Dapol Plastics, a company that made plastic bowls, and also ITEK in Bedford, which made lenses for satellites. He just kept on talking, and in an even more graveled tone than before described how in the 1960’s they developed asbestos, which he and his co-workers sprayed into buildings before putting up the drop-ceilings; about their resulting labored breathing, he said, “some guys couldn’t blow at all – one guy couldn’t even get going.”

Rubber Lips loves the ocean, and occasionally during our portrait session, I would be startled by a sound that was sort of like whispering steam. It was his clock chiming in the half hour with a recorded sound of ocean surf. He also loves SCUBA diving! He tried to get into the Navy in 1946, but, “they didn’t want me, said I had too much sugar in my blood…bullshit. The real reason was because I had only an eighth-grade education…I said fuck it…I was always a hard worker and a swimmer, too.” Despite his work ethic, his first wife would only allow him to have one six-pack a week.

Rubber Lips never stopped talking, each of his amazing memories punctuated with an exact date. He didn’t hesitate to tell me sad family trials and tribulations, a story filled with three children whose lives ended in great personal tragedy, every detail from a son’s stabbing to another’s overdose at age thirty-one. He has a grandson, William Wayne, from his fifty-eight-year-old daughter Roberta; he said that his grandson has currently “met up with some snapper from Pennsylvania.”

“Yeah,” he said gruffly, “they call me ‘Rubber Lips’ because I talk like hell! I remember the 1950’s Burly Show in old Scollay Square over there in Boston. Now there was Sally Keith…! She could twist a tassel on her tits…one on each side…she could make them tassels go on each cheek, too!”