that was then...
...this is now
Because the process or procedures behind my art are so unusual,
I thought there might be interest for some visitors in how I got
‘started’ in art, how my art evolved, and what art has come
to mean to me now. This area of my site will treat these things,
in a loose ‘time line’ format, at times linking to other areas for
details on the techniques or more information about the topics.
to Junior High School
was little in my early years which would predict a later passion with
art. I did have an unusual interest in systems, codes and puzzles -
not crossword puzzles but I was just fascinated with the idea that
you could designate a symbol to mean something else. This idea first
comes up in mathematics in what we call algebra, and it’s strange
for me to look back now and see how my interest back then about
‘symbols standing for something else’ was the precursor to my interest
in abstract art today.
At one point I invented a board game. I had been playing Monopoly with
my parents and it got me thinking. I worked out the end goal of the game and
then worked backward from there. Unfortunately I donít remember anything
about the game now, but the story tells how being creative was a part of
my passion at this time about these abstract things.
- By this time I was playing
around with pencil and paper, drawing lines. Not in so much an
‘artistic’ way, however. For example, noticing in a right
triangle, how the two legs
had a funny thing going on: if I
shortened one leg and not the other the two angles would change and
the length of what I later learned was the hypotenuse would change.
And I realized then that there must be a way that this change
could be determined mathematically. Now, the important point about this
is that this interest I had in what was really the beginnings of
trigonometry was primarily in its visual
aspect. If I had been
a true mathematician, I would have gone on to be fascinated with the
mathematics that we called ‘trig’ for short back in high school, but
once away from the visual aspect, I would lose interest. I was
becoming more and more aware that my vocation or main interest was
going to be around the process of seeing
- this is what
interested me most: visual stuff.
With this propensity, combined with lousy study habits, it was quite
natural for me to gravitate to art as my main interest because with art
I could draw and continue to trip out on ‘visual stuff’ like just described.
San José City College - Life at SJCC was
more or less a continuation of High School. At first I was just
meandering around trying to figure out what I was going to do. One of
the reasons I stayed with education in the first place was because of the
Vietnam War - if I quit I would lose my student deferment. I did have to
take some general education courses (which I more or less slept through),
but quickly it was the art classes that I knew I thrived on, and it was
only the art classes that I wanted to take for most of my time at
1976: San Francisco Art Institute
- I left SJCC
after taking all the art courses twice and was told to "get out of here".
They suggested I go to the San Francisco Art Institute, which I entered
My time at the Art Institute was a time of surprising change and
growth. I went into the school with many of my adolescent, untested ideas
about art intact. The strategy there was not what you might think they do
at an art school. They didnít teach you how to paint or draw. The
Francisco Art Institute
is what they call a studio school - you learn by
doing. They had several core lecture courses that were required, with
everything else studio work. The courses were ‘Modern Art History,
1850 Ė Present (2 semesters)’, ‘Psychology as Applied to
‘Philosophy as Applied to Art’. With these classes they created an
atmosphere where when you went into your studio you had the tools to
consider what you were doing and navigate the shoals of making art
in the modern world. But no one told you what to do. If you had
questions there were people around to talk with and then there was
the library. I learned as much from the students as
from the instructors.
Two events, looking back, proved to be major turning points
while I was at SFAI: During my first year at SFAI I had just coasted in
the direction I had embarked on from high school in my painting.
The art I was doing
at this time was in the way of adolescent psychedelic poster art, in
my own personal abstract style. I seemed to be stuck in this mode, and
wanted to break out and get into the more pure abstract expressionism I had been
learning about during this first year.
that first summer no one was around the
campus, there being only a couple of summer courses. I do not know how
the idea came to me, but I thought of something to do that I hoped would
break me out of my old patterns. What I did was get
some acrylic paint and some basic drawing paper and paint the paper
a color. Then I would paint another piece of paper another color. Then
a third piece of paper another color. Just to re-experience at the most
primal level the simple act of laying color down on paper.
Everyday all day long I just did the Zen painting thing until, by the
next fall, I found I had succeeded in breaking my old patterns and was
doing what was my then current understanding of abstract expressionism.
While this art was nothing like my current art and its system, the big
turning point was that I freed myself from my old patterns and could now
really start to grow in the direction I wanted.
A particular teacher at SFAI proved to be the other major
influence on me at this time that, looking back, proved to be
a great shaper of myself as an artist. His name was
most influential teacher in my life (and many other
people’s lives - some of his art work can be seen
One anecdote showing Sam’s influence on me:
Part of the teaching technique at SFAI was what was called a
‘periodic critique.’ All the students in a class
would put up their work and the instructor would go through
them and basically eviscerate them. I had what I thought was
the greatest painting ever. It was large (over 5 feet high), and
I had been working on it for weeks, constantly every day. One of
my friends was late for this assignment and didnít have a painting
ready for the critique so he, quick like a bunny, whipped up
a little paint sketch of a duck on a piece of sketch paper. We went
into the studio and put our pieces up against
the wall next to each other. When Sam got to our pieces he laughed
because he knew what had just gone down. The sketch was quick and fresh
and my painting was heavy and labored and that was the first thing
Sam saw. He said, pointing to my labor of love,
“That fucking duck just kicked that piece of shit
right out the window!” This experience
very effectively drove home for me
the point that I had to radically loosen up! These are just
two of many such experiences at the Art Institute.
I graduated from S.F. Art Institute in 1974 with a BFA in Painting,
and promptly re-enrolled for the master’s program, graduating in 1976
with my MFA in Painting at 27 years young.
1977 - 1984: Disillusionment and my “Spiritual
- It only took about 3 years for me to realize fully what most all
art majors learn upon graduation, which is that I didn’t know at all
how to support myself as an artist in the real world. This was an important
turning point in my artistic life. I came to the bitter conclusion that I
had wasted my time with art, and that it was high time for me to get
on with ‘real life’, which required at the very least getting a job that
could pay the rent. My interest in art started a rapid descent, taking a
back seat to the task at hand: finding a right livelihood.
But doing what? I saw an ad one day (while working as a
taxicab driver) about taking drafting lessons, realized
how that could tie into my basic interest in the visual and all the drawing
experience I had had in my past, and decided right there to go to
San Francisco City College and take some drafting
courses. At the time I started these classes, art was dead for me. I did
not so much as touch a brush, go to galleries or museums, or even
think about art. As far as Art was concerned, I had entered my
I finished the drafting
classes in 1980 and took my student portfolio on the street and
got a job as an entry level manual drafter
at $6/hr for a drafting service, embarking on life as a worker in the
But all was not right. While not being clear about it at
the time, I was becoming more and more ‘dysfunctional’.
The dysfunction expressed itself primarily in my inability to keep a job
for any length of time. In 5 years I worked for perhaps 20 different
engineering companies, often through a temp agency.
1985: Coming Out of the Desert - With
the support of my wife, who had realized that I needed to get
back to my art to get past this ‘dysfunction’, I decided to
make a serious recommitment to my art. The change this recommitment
made in my life was remarkable - to the very day I made the
recommitment, my work life took a change for the better.
And now I understood something new about my art - I understood
why I had to make art: to stay functional and sane. Something
that the art schools do not teach. The next several years came as a
series of experiences that reinforced that initial lesson: “Pay
attention to the Art first - everything else will
fall into place.”
Looking back on this period of crisis I went through, I sense
it is something all artists have to face in one form
or another sometime in their lifetimes. Of course there are exceptions,
but few. One might think of it as the artistic equivalent of chicken
pox - if encountered early in your artistic life it’s troubling
but survivable. But if encountered later in life, as a mature artist,
it can be fatal.
It’s a kind of portal one has to pass through. They told
us in graduate school only 5% of us would still be painting 5 years after
graduation. That was a scary thought, and in fact proved accurate.
But I came out the other side a mature and self-aware artist. I
couldnít be here unless I had gone through that passage of fire.
Developing Confidence and Realizing the Urgency of My Own Art
I doubt if I could have embarked on the path I find myself today if it had not
been for experiences I gained from a particular past employer, which I will relate now.
These experiences played a pivotal role in my realization of
the importance of my own explorations in art, and served to awaken within myself
the confidence and self-command I needed to make it happen.
In 1987 I took a job working
for a small group (5 people counting myself)
of structural engineers based in the bay area. The
founder of the company was a native of Iran who
had immigrated to the United States 20 years earlier. The owner was a fanatical follower
of EST, a motivational therapy to help people perform at a
higher level. He demanded a 10 hour day out of everybody, at straight time,
and would often bring in work that had to be done the next day. Another
trick he would pull was to bring in work on a
Thursday or Friday to be done by Monday Ė work all weekend Ė all
at straight time. I was regularly working a 10 to
12 hour day, averaging a 52 hour work week over 18 months.
This experience in itself taught me one useful thing that
would help me in my art that I had so enthusiastically recently re-embraced:
I learned from him that if I didnít take control of my
priorities, someone else would. So with the little time I had left in my days, I
was very methodical about going out to my studio and painting
every chance I had. Every night I would go out and do something, even
if I was only out there for a half an hour.
One day the owner got the bright idea that if he sent me to an EST
seminar it would really light a fire under me and I would work even harder
for him. The irony was that he had to pay for the seminar and
for my time and I didnít get any work done that day. The speaker at the
seminar was very good. He really got through to me the message that if there is
something I want to do in life there are no excuses, and only one person to look to.
It was a turning point in my life and I realized what I had to do.
I went back to the office and told the owner “That was the greatest thing
you’ve ever done. Now I know what I’m going to do. And
I’m not working weekends anymore.” Surprisingly he took it well and
didn’t fire me on the spot. I continued working for him another 6 months
when I found another job.
You may find it surprising if I tell you, furthermore,
that despite my former employer’s
shortcomings, there was in the man, very strongly, the notion of personal honor.
To do what you say you’ll do. His sense of personal honor was an inspiration
to me, and has stayed with me to this day. That and the opening that the EST lessons
provided me gave me a greater sense of purpose with my art, and I knew I had
to get something done with the time I had. My recently re-kindled interest in
developing my own unique approach to art was now evolving into a full fledged
‘passion’ for me.
1988 - 1995 Gestation of my current system
One thing else that set the stage for me coming
into my own unique system of art needs to be mentioned. Around the same time I was
working under my tough employer, I had moved from San Francisco, where artists
abound, to Vallejo, where I felt very ‘cut-off’ from all artistic influences.
This was good. The combination of working under the demands of my fanatical employer,
my own insistence to paint at all costs, and now living in ‘exile’,
with no artists for miles around in Vallejo, resulted in conditions ideal
for developing my own system, arising from the seeds planted years ago when
I first went into drafting as a means of livelihood.
For 8 years I developed my system alone in my garage. The conditions were: very
restricted time, and no one around who had any interest in what I was doing, no one to tell
me “you can’t do that”. The system I developed during this
time is described in its own section on this site, called Theory
. Click on this link to investigate it in its entirety,
but briefly described it can said to be a system which incorporates basic
elements of painting, such as Grid, Negative Image, Image, and Color, in a
‘systematized’ way, involving individual steps, although
there is quite a lot of leeway in how it is all brought together.
One immediate benefit of my system is that it relieves me of having to wrestle with
certain things artists have always struggled with in their compositions, letting
these things, in a way, be ‘dictated’ by the method, thus allowing
my creativity to concentrate on the emotional and physical execution of the painting, the actual ‘putting brush to canvas’ - where the
1994 - ‘Deployment’ of My New System
Working out my system took me a long time, and during this time, most all
the art I did was not what I’d call ‘art I’d want to show anyone’. But
by 1994, I had my system ‘down’ to the point where my
art was now something I felt could stand as something that truly
represented my own unique approach and which therefore could be
‘shown to the world.’ The work shown on my web site
starts with this date (see Early Work
in the Galleries).
After a year of this I started to ventured out into the
surrounding areas and found that there were indeed artists
in the Vallejo/Benicia area (I hadn’t been so isolated by
distance as I had imagined). I became interested in the
Vallejo Artist Guild. I started showing my art around the area.
The response I got from the local art community was often
a kind of stunned silence, especially after they saw
how I was painting my works.
One element I introduced into my works that had not been there
at the start was the use of Borders. I wanted to find a way
to emphasis the role of geometry in my work, so I came up with
the idea of having borders which (perhaps like a ‘barcode’)
serve to highlight the geometry and colors of each art work (see
Use of Borders
in the Galleries).
1998 - Collaboration Idea First Comes to Me
It was during this period that the idea of collaboration using my system first
occurred to me. This proved to be a very significant event in my art life,
as it led to many exciting discoveries and is still something I am
pursuing to this day.
Because of the significance of this idea, it has its
own section on my site - click here
to investigate it fully. But for now I can tell you that the idea
was born from the fact that my system had individual steps, and it occurred
to me that it would be intriguing to see what could come of having the
separate steps handled by different individuals. And not individuals
collaborating in the usual way, but being kept isolated from each other,
more or less, so each could put their own creative fire into what they
were contributing without being hampered by what has gone before or what
may come after.
As explained in its own section, I eventually got a few people to try
out my idea. The first two attempts at this were quite amazing to me, a
painting called Pink Lady
with Karen Brorby and one called Cupid
with Radi Vrannish. My reaction was ecstatic. I was astounded that
they looked like paintings at all much less pretty good paintings!
2001 - Collaborative Work on Newspaper; Guerrilla Art
My drafting work (specifically, taking a class in a new computer program called GIS, Geographic Information System) cut into my
ability to pursue this collaborative art
topic as I would have wanted shortly after, as explained
in its own section, we had a whole art class experiment with the idea.
Someone I had known from the Artist Guild and who had worked with me on
the collaborative paintings, Trevor Burrowes, approached me one day and
asked if I was interested in working with him, merging our two systems
in one. Trevor had developed his own system centered around recyclable
materials like newspaper, and had been involved with public art like
murals and banners.
So we started our own collaborative project, painting on large
newspaper ‘canvases’. Our first artwork was a piece called
This was quickly followed by
all of which we used to show how art can be used to aid in the fight
against urban blight.
This 'fight the blight' collaborative effort between Trevor and I has
become very important to me, and it's not yet known where it will lead. We would
like to get other people (not just artists) enthused with what can be done
by a little effort with art in improving areas of blight in and around their
neighborhoods, for example, but it remains to be seen what can develop from
these first beginnings. Its own section on this site, still under early
development, is entitled Taking Art to the People
Working with Trevor marks another turning point in my art career. So far
I had worked with beginning painters and students, with only a few exceptions. My
vision was to work with mature accomplished
painters on the same skill level as myself.
Painters who could take my system, internalize it, and go in a new direction with it.
Trevor was one of the first instances of that and, so far, is the only one
who has taken my system in new directions. It has been as much a learning experience
for me as for him. I had the opportunity to see my system through others’ eyes.
It was quite enlightening. Some notions I had that I had taken for granted I could
now see in a different perspective. And I found that collaborating with others
who are as invested in the outcome as I was is not the carefree ‘walk in the
park’ I had envisioned. Although I was quite capable of compromising on
the final outcome of the piece, I did have some problems with what might be
called a ‘meandering style of work’. So this was something new I
had to take into account.
Also there is the issue of assimilating Trevor’s system,
which still proves to be a challenge. Trevor is concerned with a lot of
issues having to do with a social context and the role art plays in society.
Trevor has said he is not a pure painter as I am. His vision includes painting
but also how art interacts with the culture at large. Whereas I am what he
calls a pure painter - I’m not so much concerned with the social/political
context of my work. Although with Trevor’s influence that may change.
2001 - Invitation to show at 2003 Florence Biannual
Getting an invite to show my work at the Biannual
International Exposition of Contemporary Art
in Florence, Italy is something I can't leave off this Time Line, as you can well
understand. It takes place from Dec 6th through the 14th and I will write about it
on this site once I have returned. The selection committee of the
biannual nominated me. I didn't make an application. They saw this
web site and sent me an e-mail inviting me. I'm
thrilled to have been considered by the
Florence Biannual selection committee for this show.
2002 - Started using newspaper in my own (non-collaborative) art
A major influence from Trevor Burrowes (see
in Galleries). Also started
using acrylic instead of oils and a shortened 4-step version of my system.
Consequently I’m able to finish a piece in as little as 1 week instead
of 6 to 8 weeks on the oil paintings.