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When Fish Fly- Actually and Allegorically

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

Fast fish or loose fish- the phrase in Hermann Melville's 1851 novel, Moby Dick was used to describe the legality and ownership of whales, wounded and harpooned or free and on the loose. The loose fish or loosened fish that I liberated (allegorically) in my paintings of years ago have come full circle in some interesting ways. Just recently one of these paintings of the early 1990's came back to me for restoration- after passing to a younger generation - with an episode of literal flight in Tucson, Arizona. More on that later. First some thoughts on the paintings of fish and other items taking to the sky.



Above-" Hallelujah Bass" A large oil painting from 1990.

I painted this series of works, that I refer to as magic realism- a literary classification for novelists of Latin America whose work encompasses these heightened depictions. To cut to the chase, this series of paintintgs was just plane fun to create. I was compelled to use my imagination and come up with illustrations that were fanciful, while provoking levity and contemplation. I enjoyed the novelty and allowed for a free flow of associations- but often with something personal and probing included.


These often started with a general idea, or perhaps a passage in a book or newspaper, a lyric in a song or something from my own dreams. Being less reliant on the literal and the banal was included in the motivation while still drawing from impressions and phenomena of light on form. As I was often depicitng invented townscapes, I could distort and manipulate perspective in enjoyable ways. I think of the works of the twentieth century American painter, Grant Wood, who would do similar paintings, where he'd take a bird's eye view of a New England town- as in his depiction of Paul Revere's Midnight Ride. His many other paintings of the midwest landscapes were inspired by observation but taken into very personal visual expression. These paintings could not be confused with photography, yet at the same time they were highly developed and rendered tightly with small brush strokes in egg tempera. So I can relate to Wood and similarly Thomas Hart Benton- but using a more brushy and painterly approach.


Above- one of the paintings of this series titled, "Country Fish Sing a Road Song." This one finished on 8-8-88, which seemed like a cosmic or auspicisous date.


Not to be restricted to putting fish out of water- I reveled in doing the same with automobiles. A bevy of chevies flying over rurual Pennslvania delighted me. The antique automobiles in sorties over quaint towns were enjoyed as subjects for the beauty of the forms and artistry that today's cars lack.



Above- "Coronation of the Cadillac" a more recent painting - taking a baroque figure from a Caravaggio painting and inerjecting it into a nocturne allegory over an imagined Pennsylvania town.


I was contacted about a year ago by the son of one of my collectors who had inhertied some of his father's paintings. One needed restoring, as it had incurred some significant damage through unusual circumstances. While moving between homes in Tucscon many years ago, the painting titled, "Hallelujah Bass" was placed on the roof ofnan old Saab while two of the sons attempted to hold it in place with hands out the windows. Mother Nature had her own designs and a gust of wind from the Sonoran Dessert lifted the painting off the roof, only to soar back down and crash into the curb and splintering the oak strip frame and damaging the painting significantly too.



It was not beyond repair. And I filled most of the cracks in the canvas with grey acrylic, so as to separate the later coats of oil from the raw linen. If the oil touches the linen it will rot- hence the usual layer of gesso or rabbit skin glue on canvases or linen. The Belgian linen was a of tight weave and heavy weight, which made it very durable- therefore the damage was minimized. The painting was important to Steve, and his father therefore willed it to his son before his passing. The collection of Bruce Shuttes is now shared among his children and wife.


The painting of the soaring bass above a town used parts of the Prebyterian Church in Wyalusing and parts of other churches to come up with a truly unique structure. The steeple was derived from a church near Warren Center, PA that I would pass on the drive to Ithaca. The painting was also part of several exhibits, one being a one-man-show at the State of the Art Gallery in Ithaca and in shows at the Arnot Museum and The Roberson Museum,


So, I found it somehow pertinant, if not poetically apt that my painting of flying largemouth bass should endure an episode of actual flight in the southwest US some 2500 miles from the Pennsylvania towns depicted. What comes around goes around, and at times in unexpected ways. Steve explains that it was part of an agreement with his father Bruce, when he was dying that Steve could inherit the painting if he agreed to have it restored. And Steve explains also, that it was part of his emotional healing to complete this task. So, I am very honored to be part of such a significant journey in their family. It is also wonderful to see art become such an integral part of living.




When Steve and his family came to pick up the painting this week, I had asked Steve if he'd pose for an oil portrait. He agreed and I did a quick oil sketch of him, referred to as an alla prima portrait, or one-sitting work. Steve is a gregarious fellow and pleasant to be around as are his wife and childres. I had a movie ready to go in our living room, Narnia, which I thought suitably entertaining for a10 and 11 year old. But to my delight, they spent most of the time, about an hour and quarter seated behind me watching the portrait develop. Steve's occasionals smile, his full beard, and interesting physignomy made for an engaging study.



Above- Painting Steve Shuttes in my studio,

To view a short video of the painting nearing completion view this youtube link. Steve recounts the story of the painting in flight too.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q36BfC89KtE



Note- Two of the paintings in this essay are available at the North Star Art Gallery in Ithaca, NY.


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