Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Call For Art

Above is an image I recently created and one that I’ve titled Disdain. Its completion brought some satisfaction but left me with a nagging question. Is it art? Right now I’m not sure it even fits that category. But first allow a brief backstory.

Years ago I pulled a photo from a nature magazine of a smug African Baboon taking the sun. A compelling image, I tucked it away like many other photos for future reference. Some years later I scanned the photo and saved it in a large ‘miscellaneous photos’ folder. There it languished until the other night when I came upon an unusual image posted on Facebook. An artist had edited a photo of a woman in Photoshop by applying a special effect filter. The result resembled an abstract painting and the post comments congratulated the artist on a unique and beautiful work of art.

But was it art or even intended to be art? While pondering that, I remembered the odd baboon photo and decided to try my hand in Photoshop. I am by no means a Photoshop Master, but within a short time had created the above image.

At this early stage, could I dare call it art? Perhaps I could if following Marcel Duchamp’s dictum, “Art is whatever I say is art.” Going further, I might copy the image to a CD, take it to a fine art printer and have a 5’ image printed on canvas. Placed on a museum-wrap stretcher, the work would get a few strokes of oil pigment and voila, it would be done. The mixed-media painting is finally hung in an art gallery with a hefty price tag. On opening night a wealthy wine merchant from Argentina purchases Disdain for $14,500. Here at last, with conviction, could I dare call it art? Or, at that point, perhaps I should not say a word.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Question

Recently I gave a talk about my art in connection with an exhibition at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. Afterwards visitors asked general questions about my process, about materials and inspiration. Near the end of the evening, an art student approached me with what turned out to be the most important question. Important because it gave me pause and continues to perplex.

How, she asked, would I respond to certain people who might charge that I am appropriating important and even sacred cultural symbols and beliefs. The question caught me off guard and I’m afraid my answer might not have been satisfactory.

I told her that artists down the ages have sampled ideas and images from other cultures. Their appropriations were deemed valid because under the artists’ creative influences the images became part of unique new art works. Picasso, van Gogh, and Gauguin, in particular, were adept at re-interpreting ‘foreign’ artistic styles.

The student’s question may have been in reference to a piece in the exhibition titled “Singing The World.” The title is based on an Australian native people’s story of how the world and everything in it were created. The painting features an image of a kangaroo and a style that harkens back to Aboriginal art.

My intent is not to disrespect Aboriginal culture but to celebrate it and to do so in a way that is unique and true to my particular vision. And I believe the piece fits in seamlessly with the other works in the exhibition.

I’m thankful the young woman asked me that question because it continues to bring up other questions. How would native Australians respond to “Singing The World”? Perhaps they would have no objections to it and could even come to celebrate the painting. Could it be that in modern society's rush to be politically correct, we simply reject that which we don't understand? I wonder.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Call To Collect

Years ago I attended a dinner party given by a couple who were well respected in the art community. Their contributions and endorsements over the years had made a considerable difference to both artists and institutions.

Walking into their waterside home, I was stunned to see many of my art works hanging on their walls. It turned out they had been collecting my work for years and I was not even aware of it. While it was true several pieces had been purchased from me, most were picked up at fund raisers and charity events. That experience convinced me of the many different ways to collect art.

One of the largest private art collections I’ve seen belongs to a local dentist. He once asked me if I would come and authenticate two pieces of art with the name Gaston on them. His high ceiling Victorian home was filled salon style with the most intriguing art work, many of which had been purchased at yard sales. On the walls, almost up to the crown molding, hung fine examples of outsider art, African art, abstract landscapes and even paint by number pieces.

The two works in question hung side by side and occupied a central position in the hallway. One was an early piece painted by my father and the other a small drawing of mine purchased at an outdoor art show. My father and I did not see eye to eye on some of the vagaries of life but we were both passionate about art making. Standing there I had the sense that somehow a circle had been completed.

In order to support my art making habit, I have, over the last thirty years, worked at various part-time jobs. Twelve of those years were spent at a natural food store, where on free time, lunch breaks or on the telephone, I doodled. One day another employee came to me with a worn scrapbook she wanted to share. The book was filled with dozens of my little doodle drawings she had collected over the years. Some had even been pulled out of the garbage can and proudly added to her collection.

These examples of art collections won’t make it onto my resume, but in their own way they have become as important to me as my works in museum and corporate collections.

But if you're looking for advice on collecting from a business perspective, you should check out Invaluable's blog In Good Taste which features the latest trends in art and antiques.

(art works courtesy of Aydelette Kelsey and Denis Gaston)

Friday, January 1, 2016

My Father The Map Maker

While renovating the old homestead a few years ago, I found this magnetic sign behind the living room wall. My father most likely placed it there during an earlier renovation when he and my mom moved here in 1971. He did things like that.

When I was a kid I tried to impress friends by telling them my dad was a cartographer. But, truth be known, Richard Gaston was much more than that and, as far as I know, the only one - a traveling salesman and promoter who could also draw.

In Virginia and later Florida he created dozens of hand-drawn points of interest maps of off the beaten path towns. In a time before shopping malls and urban sprawl rendered town centers obsolete, dad's maps were a celebration of small owner-operated businesses.

On his maps you could usually find ads for barber shops, beauty salons, filling stations, diners and motor courts, all endangered species today. For only $39.50 those businesses got a one by two inch full color ad plus 50 maps to hand out to customers.

When dad came in off the road, he would toss a bunch of those checks on the bed for my sister and me to count. Sometimes there was as much as $474. We thought we must surely be rich, and now these many years later I realize that we were.

Sunday, December 27, 2015


Police in Clearwater, Florida arrested a local man early Friday morning on charges of being an artist.

Denis Gaston of 520 S. Keystone Ave. was taken into custody without incident after neighbors reported him acting funny and they didn't know why.

"Well, he worked late at night doing something on the front porch," said next-door neighbor Dillard Pike. "Visitors always had to come in the back door."

"And he sat in his back yard a lot, just sitting there doing nothing," added Pike's wife Martha. "He was nice enough but we just never suspected this!"

Police discovered the 70 year old Gaston's home filled with strange and lurid paintings, some still wet.

"I've been on the force 27 years and I've never seen anything like this!" said Clearwater detective Elvis Murkle. "Paint everywhere, even on the ceiling, like there was some kind of fierce struggle."

Gaston remains in the city jail, awaiting a panel of experts evaluation of his mental state.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Choco Love

Remember when you were a kid and your parents took you to a candy store? Remember when you thought working there must be the best job in the whole world? And then one of the workers said, “No, after a while, you get tired of all that candy.”

Well, it’s just not true. After five years of working at Richard’s Foodporium Dunedin, which has 32 different kinds of chocolate candy, I still get a powerful craving to eat each and every one of them; the dark chocolate almonds, the pistachio chocolate toffee, the goji cacao chunks, the dark chocolate pretzels, the dark chocolate coffee beans, the chocolate peanut butter malt balls.

I could go on and on, but lately have begun a courageous attempt at total chocolate abstinence. To this end I’ve joined the local chapter of CA, Chocoholics Anonymous. Their famous 12 Step Program has saved thousands like myself from the gooey clutches of demon chocolate.

It’s been tough going but I’m almost halfway through. Now let me tell you about the dreaded Step 6. This devious part of the program is more like a stumble than a step. “Step 6: I will never ever give in to temptation. Place a bag of dark chocolate hazelnuts in the kitchen cabinet and leave it there unopened and untouched.”  That was two weeks ago and I must say I’ve been quite strong in my resistance, even though I go in the kitchen a lot.

But the other night something woke me from a sound sleep. I’m sure I heard whispering, but was it in a dream. I lay there silent, straining to hear and just then came faint but unmistakable voices from the kitchen. “Denis, we’re in here. In the kitchen cabinet.” 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Two Reads For A Wet Week

A good friend recently down-sized her Florida home and offered me first pick from a stack of books headed to the library. Passing over exotic travel books and thick novels, I selected two very different paperbacks; Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris and Chris Rose’s 1 dead in attic. Only later when I began reading did I discover a connection between the two books. 

David Sedaris has made a career of making us laugh at the absurdities of life and Holidays on Ice is no exception. This is a collection of six of Sedaris’s most profound stories about Christmas. After reading “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” I’ll never be able to read another holiday newsletter with a straight face.
There is nothing funny about 1 dead in attic, journalist Chris Rose’s firsthand account of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Rose’s collection of essays, wonderfully complemented by Charlie Varley's photographs, offers a stark and gut-wrenching look at life in The Big Easy post-Katrina. It’s also a reminder of the failure of governmental bureaucracy that preceded and set the stage for the Hurricane.

The common thread that these two books share is the often irrational and ridiculous nature of life. Whether we laugh at the absurdity or cry, what results is a kind of catharsis. And through this collective release, we are able to go on with our own lives.

photo- 1 dead in attic, Charlie Varley, c. all rights reserved

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Cool Time In Hot Town

This weekend marks the 27th year of the now venerable Cool Art Show. This small indoor event has, over the years, become the gold standard for artist run exhibitions. But those of us who launched the Show in 1987 had little idea it would evolve into a major summer exhibition. All we aimed for was to make a little money in that beastly time of year when no one dared have an outdoor show in Florida.

So we forged ahead with equal parts naiveté and hope and a tremendous amount of work. The results of that effort will be on display at St. Petersburg Coliseum where 80 top notch artists gather to share and sell their art. Thinking on Cool Art has dislodged a gaggle of memories that now deserve to be shared.

For a number of years, Jack Breit brought his miniature golf clubs to the Show. He lay out a course on the exhibition floor and during slow times artists and patrons tried their hand at putting. Amazingly, no artwork got destroyed or ankles turned on errant golf balls.

One year my van blew a tire on the Bayside Bridge and I nearly crashed into the side. As I cursed and sweated changing the tire, Steve Littlefield came driving by. He slowed down, honked and waved and kept right on driving.

In 1990, with July fast approaching, we still had no venue for the Show. At the last moment, the Dunedin Fine Art Center agreed to put up with us for the weekend, and 30 artists jammed their displays into the two unfinished main galleries. It was probably the only time an art center hosted an outdoor art show indoors.

Artists can be quite testy at times, but even worse are their spouses. One late night I got a phone call from an artist’s irate wife. She demanded to know why her husband had been juried out of the Show. For thirty minutes I listened to her rant and tried to remain calm and reason with her. But when she hinted at the possibility that something might happen to me, I hung up.