Painting Flowers: Two Stories

“I love your flowers, but I’m curious– why do you paint them?,” a man at a gallery exhibition asked me. “Normally you paint landscapes, portraits, street scenes, dreams…. The flowers are beautiful, but they seem like an odd fit.”

It’s thanks to Soroptomists, I told him. It turned out that his wife was a member, so I didn’t have to explain that Soroptomists are a service organization that is dedicated to helping women, children and families throughout the world. Every Spring, as part of fundraising efforts, Soroptomists of the Sierra Foothills, a chapter in our area, sponsors a tour of flower gardens. Participants pay for a ticket to visit the beautiful gardens of local residents. Artists and musicians are invited to the gardens to draw, paint or play music to help create a welcoming ambiance. We get to abandon our studios and spend a few hours in the fragrances of flowers and the chatter of birdsongs. Whether our presence has contributed to the success of the tours, which over the years have raised thousands of dollars, I can’t say. But I’m grateful to the Soroptomists for placing me, one weekend in May a while ago, in a radiant garden where I encountered the irises you see in the image.

If you don’t pay close attention to them, flowers seem to be simple creatures, yet the more you observe them, the more complex they become. Needless to say, this is also true of everything else in this world, but drawing and painting flowers in a garden present specific challenges. As usual, before anything else, it’s essential to be practical: find yourself a spot in the shade. This means paying attention to the path that the sun will take during the hours you will be at work, so that the light in the composition will remain as consistent as possible. In other words, if your spot is in shade now, will it still be shady in a couple of hours? You should also provide food and water for yourself. At its best, painting can be an act of meditation.  This is especially true of painting flowers, so cultivating the ability to ignore distractions is helpful, although the visitors in the gardens are usually more interested in flowers, so they tend to leave you, and the musicians, in peace.
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A Vision: Peace

Happy Scanlon saved my life, not once, but twice. We don’t discuss the first occasion, but the second is different. I’m equally grateful to her for both, and since the second one involves a painting, I’m going to tell you about it.

Happy is a woman well-named, a delightful friend, light-hearted, mischievous, funny, smart, playful. However, her mood was anything but happy when one morning, she phoned me, and threw a lifeline. For several weeks she had been designing and decorating the new office of an executive in a cosmetics company. Her client was satisfied with the draperies, the rug, the desk and chairs, the colors of the walls, every detail except an all-important finishing touch– a painting that would hang behind his desk. “It’s the last piece of the puzzle and then I can be done with this guy– forever,” she told me. “God, you won’t believe what I’ve been through!  He turns his nose up at everything I’ve suggested or shown to him. How can you not like Impressionism?  He doesn’t like Impressionism. Nor anything else. The frustration of not being able to please this man is making me crazy.”

Would I mind talking with him? Inviting him to visit my studio? Perhaps I could suggest painting a special commission for him? “He may not like your work, Michael, and all this may come to nothing, but I’m desperate. Can I give him your phone number?” I don’t think she knew how desperate I happened to be at the time. I didn’t have to check my bank statement to know how much money I didn’t have, so I thanked her and said yes. Later that afternoon her client’s secretary called to arrange for a visit, and two mornings later, I welcomed Richard Wallace into my studio.
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A Memory of Flowers

The story of how I came to live in a condemned, haunted building on Skid Row in San Francisco, and create paintings there, is too long and complex to tell in this post. But there is a special painting, a memory, inspired by the ghosts of those long-ago years that I’d like to tell you about.

But first, the Reno Hotel. It was as wide as a city block and when it was alive and still breathing in this world, it stood on 6th Street between Mission and Howard. During the late 1960’s, in addition to the Tenderloin, 6th Street was The City’s home for winos, prostitutes, street hustlers, liquor stores, flophouse hotels and porn theatres. The Reno did not cater to transients; it was a residential hotel, home for truck drivers, longshoremen, pensioners, men and women without families. Many had lived there for years and the Reno was the only home they had. Until it was stopped by a class action lawsuit, San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency radically changed the neighborhoods south of Market Street by condemning dozens of residential hotels like the Reno. What you see in the photo above is only the skeleton of the home the Reno had been for its residents before they were evicted. In time it came to be the home of several artists as well, until a few years later when it was finally destroyed by fire.

The ground floor consisted of the lobby and front desk of the hotel, a bicycle repair shop, Louie’s Liquor and Groceries, a prizefighting gymnasium, The New Home Baptist Church and Nicholas Refrigeration Repairs. In the three stories above the ground floor there were at least 400 rooms, although the exact number was difficult to calculate. After the residents had been expelled, the upper floors were gutted: all sinks, tubs and toilets, all electrical fittings, including switches and light bulbs, were removed and the rooms became empty shells. Except for the ones I remodeled and lived in, quite illegally.

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