17 09, 2017

A Russian Art Experience


A blanket of fog has muffled the sound of a distant foghorn here on the edge of the Baltic Sea. Though it’s early here and the sun is just rising in St. Petersburg, Russia, I just heard the clang of an old streetcar, the kind with wires over the street. Right outside my window at the hundred-year-old hotel I’m staying in is a five-story red tower with cream trim around the edges. It looks hundreds of years old, and its bell is clanging rambunctiously as if to shout that everyone should be awake by now.

It’s been spitting drops from the sky since our arrival on Friday night. We rode the high-speed train from Moscow and arrived after dark. Though we should have hunkered down for the night, it was too exciting to be in this historic and amazing place, so we took a walk down streets of ornate buildings with golden domes and impressive Corinthian columns. We stopped for some traditional Russian food (the wild mushrooms are out and were amazing!) and got our first glimpse of the city, including the multi-colored onion-domed church we’ve all seen in the movies. I’m hoping to sneak away to paint it if I can find a hole in our busy agenda.

Moscow was beyond amazing. My first trip, 13 years ago, I was met with a gray, dirty city in much need of restoration and repair, yet this trip finds it a vibrant, high-fashion place, with skyscrapers everywhere and a skyline filled with cranes, an indication of more sky-reaching to come. We arrived in time to help all of Russia celebrate Moscow’s 870th birthday. Streets were filled with hundreds of thousands of visitors from across Russia for this special occasion. Many events took place around Red Square, which the locals call Revolution Square — a reminder that our perceptions of Russia may be a result of our own propaganda. These were joy-filled people having fun, no different from us. Our movies and media don’t tell the full story.

As you probably know, I’m here for our annual Fine Art Trip, and the first half, in Moscow, was filled with museum visits, and studio visits with some of Russia’s finest artists. Our guests are taking home lots of world-class paintings, and they all got to see some incredible art. For those who aren’t aware, Russia has a rich art history, and its artists produce things that had us all salivating. I’ll write more about the trip in Fine Art Connoisseur and put some photos out on Facebook. I’ve not done much because time has been consumed by a very full schedule, and exhaustion at the end of each busy day.

The trip is far from over. We have three more days of art visits, special events, special people we’re meeting, and lots of museums. Then, as everyone else heads home, I’ll be going out to the country to paint with several Russian masters for three days. I’ve only painted once since I’ve been here, from the window of my hotel overlooking the Kremlin. So I’m champing at the bit, but this isn’t a painting trip until the very end.

I’m also going to visit the studio of Ilya Repin on the last day, and I’ll do two sittings to have my portrait painted by Russian master Nikolai Blokhin. Not a bad way to spend the rest of the week.

I’m feeling very grateful.

I’m grateful for the fine people who came along with me to Russia and for our remarkable editor of Fine Art Connoisseur, Peter Trippi. We’ve all become great friends, and of course many guests have been with us on our trips several times before.

I’m grateful for the Russian art system, which has produced some of the finest artists and art the world has ever known. I had a couple of emotional moments viewing paintings by top Russian masters. And I choked up looking at a room filled with paintings by Isaac Levitan, quite possibly the greatest landscape painter who ever lived. I’m humbled by their quality.

I’m also grateful for friendships I’ve made in Russia. My reunion with some of these friends was sweet. And I can hardly believe I’ll get to paint with several top Russian artists. I’m almost giddy and can’t wait to see what I learn.

And I’m feeling grateful for this life I’m living, where I get to travel, paint, spend time with friends, and be immersed in art and the things I love. Though most weeks are pretty mundane, this experience is a wonderful exception. Plus, when I get home, I’ll turn right around and paint with more old and new friends at Fall Color Week, then it’s off to the Figurative Art Convention & Expo in Miami in November, and then one of my radio events in New York. It’s going to be a fun-filled fall.

I’m very grateful for my team members at my company, Streamline, who keep things running smoothly during my absence. And I’m grateful that our Florida team got through the hurricane safely. Even though the office is still without power, they are operating around the kitchen table of one of our people who does have power. As they say, the show must go on. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those who did not fare as well with the hurricane.

A friend once told me that you should start each day looking for three things you’re grateful for, and end each day with three more things you’re grateful for from that day. When you look for things to be grateful for, it’s hard to have a bad day. Though I don’t do it every day, I try. It seems to make things better.

Another friend told me that we spend most of our time looking at our lives and all that we have not accomplished. He suggested we turn around and look backward to see where we are now compared to where we once were. He said that will help take off the pressure and stress, because looking at what we want to do but have not yet done can be stressful or discouraging, but turning around once in awhile and looking at what we’ve already accomplished is a helpful exercise, one rooted in being grateful.

I’m very grateful for you, and I hope you’ll take a look today at what you’re grateful for, think about what you’ve accomplished, and seek out new things for which to be grateful. Chances are you’ll find a lot.

I’ll try to check in next Sunday if the jet lag and return home haven’t completely messed up my body clock, and if I don’t get stuck in Russia.

A Russian Art Experience2017-11-17T15:08:35-05:00
10 09, 2017

From Russia with Love


You may find this amusing, but I really wanted to get this out to you this week. It’s Sunday morning in Moscow, Russia. I woke up fairly early this morning in my undisclosed* hotel room near Red Square. I didn’t want to wake my wife by sitting on the edge of the bed tapping away at my keyboard, so I’m coming to you from the throne room with the door shut.

There’s an Echo in Here

Normally I describe my view, but it’s one you’re used to seeing. You know. White tile, white porcelain, a drain on the floor, and a bathtub to my side. The water in the sink is running, to help drown out my Morse Code message-tapping on the keyboard. I’m wearing a thin white robe that came with the room. This morning is quiet, designed for catching up from jet lag.

Tonight we will meet our group, many of whom have been on each of the last seven art trips, and I’m also looking forward to meeting some new friends. We’ll have cocktails, get acquainted or start catching up, and then tomorrow our art-specific adventure begins.

Did I Mention I’m Tired?

Our flight on a Russian airliner from New York was nothing out of the ordinary. You know — crammed in a seat, trying to sleep, and some loud couple with their lights on who decided to talk the entire night in Russian. Thank goodness for earplugs and blankets to put over our heads.

Applause broke out when we landed. I’m not sure if it was the thrill of being in Moscow or the thrill of realizing we’re all still alive after that long, long flight.

A Picture Fest

In the ride from the airport I annoyed my friends by rolling down the window of the cab and snapping pictures like a madman. It’s a mixture of old and new — even casinos on the streets, which was totally unexpected.

Hello, Comrades, I’m Here

Once we arrived at the hotel, our room wasn’t ready, but everyone else wanted to stay there until they could catch up on sleep. So I set off with my sketch pad and my camera and got a great feel for the neighborhood nearby. Red Square, the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral — the onion-domed church that, according to legend, was so beautiful that the czar didn’t want another like it built anywhere, so he had the architect blinded. Ouch. And there is some very high-end shopping nearby, all the big fashion brands. I’ll save my money in hopes of bringing home a painting or two. It’s my obsession.

Not What You Expected

Three times now I’ve visited this amazing place. It gets a bum rap in the movies and television, but frankly, it can be a little intimidating, especially these days. I have to admit that I was totally intimidated on my first trip, expecting what I saw in the movies. But this city is vibrant, colorful, high-fashion, and architecturally stunning.

Instead of seeing little hunched-over old ladies in colorful headscarves and cossacks dancing in the streets, or men in green military uniforms and carrying machine guns, you see well-dressed young people staring at their smartphones, amazing new skyscrapers — and men in green uniforms, carrying machine guns.

A Shout-Out to John Wurdeman

I’m here because more than a decade ago I was invited to travel with John Wurdeman, the owner of Lazare Gallery. He introduced me to Russia, and I fell in love with the people, made some great artist friends I’m looking forward to seeing, and I fell in love with Russian art. We plan to see lots of it. I wanted to publicly acknowledge John, because I would not be here if it were not for his generosity.

Painting with a Master

We’re going to spend five days here in Moscow, then five in St. Petersburg, and then I get to spend three more days painting with some of my Russian artist friends in the countryside, including one who is a Russian Master and an instructor at Moscow’s great Surikov Institute at the Russian Academy of Art. I’m excited.

For now, it’s time to get dressed and begin my official adventure for the day. I hope this got through to you.

Hopefully I can post images on Facebook and Instagram, and even if you can’t friend me because I’ve reached my limit, you can still follow me so you can see some of the pictures. Of course we will do a story of our adventures in an upcoming issue of Fine Art Connoisseur.

My Thoughts Almost Prevented My Trip

I’d like to end with something that changed my life: my willingness to go outside of my comfort zone. As I mentioned, I was intimidated about Russia, and I almost didn’t go that first time because I gave myself excuses about why it was a bad idea, why it wasn’t safe, why I couldn’t afford to go. My head was playing games with me. But I told myself I was going to go for it anyway, and I pushed the negative stuff away and jumped in.

As a result I had one of the richest, most memorable times of my life, including a chance to visit the home of Russia’s greatest living artist at the time, who has since passed on. Had I listened to my internal voices and excuses, I would have missed something truly important in my life. This week I’m taking 50 people who jumped in and took a chance, and I’m excited about sharing my experiences with them.

Where is your head messing with you? What cool adventures are you avoiding because of the excuses in your head, because of your fears about the adventure itself, of the cost, or concern for the people in your life who need you around? Maybe those fears are real, or maybe they are only excuses to make you feel comfortable.

Being uncomfortable can be life-changing. Taking risks can be invigorating. Challenging yourself to try new things will give you confidence and a great feeling because you know you went for it.

I hope you’ll look at your bucket list and start taking action. There is always a way if you want it badly enough.

Have a great Sunday — if you get this — and I’ll hopefully have a moment next Sunday to touch base.

From Russia with Love2017-11-17T15:12:55-05:00
3 09, 2017

Stormy Weather


Unless your home is one of those underground bunkers with no Internet or TV, you probably heard about our new soggy climate in Texas this past week. I feel so fortunate this morning to go out to the long, narrow porch on the back of the house to look out over my rough, unmowed backyard, which is out of control after massive amounts of rain and no dry moments to mow. The gnarled oaks and cedars, and the distant view of a purple hill, make up my view, and I am happy not to see a lake where the yard is supposed to be.

High Winds at Home

Our mildly high winds and water issues were nothing in comparison to others in our town who saw severe flooding, and especially our neighbors in Houston, who saw that hovering storm continue to wreak havoc with unprecedented flooding and devastation. I was having an e-mail dialogue with one friend who gave play-by-play water levels as it got closer and closer to their front door. It was frightening, as was the entire storm experience, which was a little too close for comfort.

Back to the Porch

Humidity is high, since the ground and air were soaked for much of our week, but my cozy little writing corner on the back deck is back to normal. It’s just me, the red wicker couch, and a little glass greenhouse that sits on the table in front of me as home to several small cacti. My black-haired squirrel is back to gathering nuts and running under my studio porch when she spots me, and one of the neighbor’s four brown-and-white Longhorn cows is scratching its back on the wire fence between our properties — and it appears to be in my yard. I think it’s better to look at cattle than to have to take care of them, at least for me, though I’ve got friends who do, and live to do it. Get along, little dogies…

Summer is Over for Me

Once the storm passed, I bit the bullet, officially gave up my summer of no travel away from the family, and began my grueling fourth-quarter travel schedule. Somehow I managed to visit two cities on the opposite sides of the country, and three in another country, in four days, which meant being gone on the day my kids normally help me celebrate my birthday.

But it’s better this way, because weekends are more fun for celebrations than school nights, when homework is involved. It could have been “Happy birthday, Dad, gotta get back to my homework,” but instead they honored me with an entire dinner and a cake. These are the best moments in life.

Let There Be Light

Before I left, I managed to install track lights up on the 16-foot ceiling of my art studio. When Laurie found this house, she called me, saying, “You’re gonna love this place, because you can have your own art studio and your own office.” She was right! I’d never had a dedicated studio before. My first studio was in a tiny 10 x 10-foot loft at the top of our tall, skinny house in Florida. Then in two California houses, the studio was in a back bedroom in one and a garage in the other, which wasn’t fun on cold winter days.

When we moved to our first house in Austin, I was in a tiny apartment over a garage, but now I’m in a real studio. It’s a little Texas cabin, brown clapboard, tin roof, string lights hanging around the edge of the roof, and a wonderful porch with a stone fireplace. I think I died and went to art heaven. And it’s big enough for my Wednesday-night figure painting group, the Bee Cave Painters. We’ve had as many as nine plus a model, which was pretty crowded, but it’s pretty comfortable with five of us.

Anyway, I’m experimenting with new lights in my studio, taking an approach I discovered when I visited the new studio of artist Steven Horne in the Adirondacks. He has managed to reproduce the temperature and intensity of north light using some new daylight LEDs and a bank of track lights way up high. I had been using a Home Depot fluorescent fixture over my easel, which was uglier than the Longhorn cattle in the backyard, and was so bright that I kept making my paintings too dark.

A Balancing Act

Berkeley and I tried to reach the 16-foot ceiling to install the lights, but alas, our 8-foot ladder wasn’t enough, and standing on the top two steps made me feel like I was a member of Cirque du Soleil on the high wire. So, since an uncracked head is important for continuing the status quo, the two of us took a quick drive to Lowe’s in the middle of blowing rains and wind gusts up to about 50.

Shopping at Lowe’s was like Christmas Day — we were one of about five customers they had seen all day. I guess people don’t shop during hurricanes. Soaked as we were, we fit most of the ladder into my little hatchback SUV, and we drove down the road with a new 12-footer hanging out of the back of the car while the rain flooded in.


Rushing to get the job done on Sunday before my flight took off, I got the entire track mounted and the lights up. But when I was all done and I turned the power back on, I realized I couldn’t get to the light switch because my bookshelf was covering it up. Guess I should stick to publishing and hire a professional next time. I think I overheard someone in the house say, “Told you so.”

Feeling Guilty

I don’t know about you, but I felt awfully guilty watching the TV in the comfort of my dry home as others were trying to survive the floods. I felt like I should do something, so after communicating with a few galleries and artists, I decided that I had to do what I could.

Free Advertising For Storm-Impacted Art People

This past week, we sent out an e-mail offering some free advertising to help artists and art businesses that have been impacted by the storm. Our goal is to encourage our readers who buy art to consider buying from these artists and galleries to help them recover. People in Houston are not likely to be thinking about buying art while they are repairing their flood-damaged homes. So if you see this special ad spread we do for them, please buy something if you’re in a position to.

Hurricane Lessons

There are lessons to be learned from the hurricane, most of which have been played to death in the media. But probably the most important one is that just because someone says you’ll be safe doesn’t mean that you will be. Maybe next time a storm is coming, it might be a time to go visit friends in another state for a few days.

It’s also a reminder that we are only in control of part of our lives, and that we are at the mercy of circumstances.

There are many more lessons, and I’d like to hear what this storm helped you learn.

Soften Your Heart

Our neighbors in Houston are going to be dealing with the impact of this storm for years. Keep them in your thoughts and prayers. It’s so easy to see these things in the media and get a little callous about them. In this case, it could have been in my town, so it’s making me take notice a little more than usual, which is a good thing.

Enjoy your Sunday. Next week, I’m not sure if I can manage to get Sunday Coffee out from Russia. Fingers crossed. I’ll be leading the Fine Art Connoisseur Russian Art Trip along with Peter Trippi. We’re taking people behind the scenes, to top museums, artists’ studios, and all kinds of cool things. Hopefully I can get this to you for Sunday.

Stormy Weather2017-11-17T15:15:09-05:00