29 November 2014


Monkey Gun
20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

Like Bang Bang (and, indeed, these paintings are displayed alongside that one in the current exhibit of my WWI painting project) I wanted to emphasize the youth of the soldiers who went off to fight in World War One (the average age of the Canadian soldiers was 26 years old). Unlike Bang Bang I haven't included any young boys, but rather the toys they gave up when they took up arms to fight.

I know that's an ape, but Ape Gun is nowhere near as good a title.
The bullets are years.

Hockey Gun
16" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

The pucks and bullets encode a common Morse phrase.

Toys 3
20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

This one doesn't get a cute title or layered symbolism because its subject matter didn't suggest either.

26 November 2014

The Kindest Cut

16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014

Considering the subject matter, my 100-painting project inspired by the beginning of World War One doesn't have very many paintings with blood in them. In fact, blood appears in only 5% or the paintings in an obvious manner (but may appear in a few of the monochromatic ones and also blood may be inferred in a couple others). My intent was to limit the usage and make the red so...red and explicit...to make the impact of it stronger and more visceral.

I've used song lyrics (from trench songs and modern pop songs) as inspiration/titles/etc. in many of my paintings (from this project and elsewhere), but the title of this one came to me subconsciously. "The kindest cut" is a fairly common phrase, but, sure enough, my brain picked it up from "All of My Heart" by ABC, which sounds sweet and romantic, musically, but is in fact quite bitter and desperate, lyrically. Appropriate.

23 November 2014

The War at Home

The Lady Irwin, Defiant
18" x 24", oil on wood panel, 2014, private collection

Quaker Barn Burning
16" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

The Quakers have had a strong presence in Prince Edward County since the late 1700s, building communities throughout the county and prospering. By the time World War One came around, their status as peaceful conscientious objectors who refused to fight in the war became well known, but not gladly accepted by everyone, namely the Ku Klux Klan who, believe it or not, had a faction in PEC and Quinte area. Before the KKK were outed as the horrific bigots they really were and eventually driven out, they were simply seen as just another Christian group (their white robes and hoods are, in fact, based on Catholic ceremonial outfits).

According to one report, the KKK had already burned down at least one Quaker barn out of anger at the Quakers not wanting to fight in the war, and they were on their way to destroy another barn in Ameliasburgh when they were stopped by the neighbour, Mrs. Irwin, who was also raised a Quaker but, in her own words, "didn't exactly follow their peaceful ways." The story she relates of the incident involve her using her .22 calibre rifle to put a few rounds in the Model T the Klan members arrived in, and when that didn't deter them, she shot a hole through their leader's tall hood, prompting them to get back in their car and drive off, leaving the neighbour's barn alone.

These paintings are in the War at Home section of my WWI painting project, and that sentiment couldn't be more apt here; while local County boys were overseas fighting an enemy they had no personal quarrel with, folks back home were also confronted with an enemy, the only quarrel being the one instigated by the local KKK. When I came upon this information early on in my research, I enjoyed Irwin's tale (however embellished it may have been), but I struggled with the idea of including an explicit scene of a barn burning because who, apart from a Klan member or other such bigot, would want that image in their dining room? Weeks went by until I finally decided that this project had to include images that were not only not likely to sell, but ones that may unsettle me deeply –and no painting in this group gave me more discomfort than the barn burning. But I'm glad I did it as it's historical and important to the overall story/point of view I'm conveying. Plus, it's happily balanced by the humour of Mrs. Irwin's feisty defiance in the other painting.

Note: the red circle on the KKK guy is actually meant to be their symbol, but I rendered it so loosely that some people think it's supposed to be a poppy. That's not my intent, and poppies didn't become common symbols of remembrance until the 20s, but I don't mind (and don't discourage) that accidental interpretation as it lends the painting a touch of surreal irony.

21 November 2014

The Tyranny of Distance

16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014

I knew when I painted Writing Between the Fighting that it would need a companion painting to go in my War at Home section of my WWI painting project. I constructed this scene from a few different elements including the young woman who was volunteering at Ameliasburgh Historical Museum and the main setting which is from a photo I took while painting at Rose House Museum.

The title powerfully conveys the heartbreak of being very far away from home and loved ones. I thought I was borrowing it from a line from Six Months in a Leaky Boat by Split Enz, but I discovered that they got the line from a book with that title by Geoffrey Blainey (the subject of the song being the same as the book).

18 November 2014

Snow March

16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014, private collection

Part of my goal for my World War One painting project was to try to convey how difficult this war was even when you set aside the fighting and the advanced weaponry which nobody had experienced before. This was not the glorious adventure overseas the propaganda posters promised.

16 November 2014

The Poison Bakery

18" x 24", oil on wood panel, 2014

Back in the deep freeze towards the end of last winter, I was at the archives in Wellington, poring through microfilm of the Picton Gazette from 1914 and 1915, looking for letters from the front, or old ads, or anything else that could give me ideas for paintings for my War at Home section of my WWI painting project. By sheer happenstance I saw these two letters to the editor out of the corner of my eye:

Letters to the Editor, Picton Gazette,
14 September 1914

Mr. Editor: it appears that evil-minded persons have circulated reports to the effect that, being in sympathy with the Germans in the European war, that it was unsafe for the public to use bread and provisions sold by me for fear of it being poisoned.
I am surely at a loss to know what the objects of such statements could be.
I can scarcely imagine that persons in the same business would be unscrupulous enough to fabricate such vile slander to build up their business on the ruins of mine.
As a British subject I intend to invoke the protection of the law, and if evidence of such slander be secured, will bring the guilty offenders into court for prosecution and conviction.
S. E. Van Horn

To whom it may concern: This is to certify that I have made investigations regarding reports that have been circulated to the effect that the bread sold by Mr. S. E. VanHorn has been poisoned, he being a German. I have found these reports to be entirely false and without foundation. Mr. VanHorn is not a German, nor of German descent. He is of Dutch descent, born in the United States, but is now a citizen of Canada, having some time ago taken out all necessary papers. I have no hesitation in stating that the patrons of Mr. VanHorn should have no fear whatever from such defects in purchasing his bread.
C. A. Publow, M.D., Medical Officer of Health

*    *    *

I printed out the page these were on, but struggled for a few months with how to best illustrate insidious rumour; I chose to go with the vandalism angle and, while the skull and crossbones implies poison, a subtler implication is the shape of the hole in the broken glass. The date of these letters makes them extra troubling since the propaganda machine wouldn't have been in place yet.

14 November 2014

Homesick (x2)

Sometimes We Feel Like Going Home
12" x 24", oil on wood panel, 2014

Sometimes I Feel Like Going Home
20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

The average age of the Canadian soldier in World War One was 26 years. Now imagine leaving your home in the city or country, crossing the Atlantic, and being thrust into a conflict you can't fully understand. Before 1917 when Canada enforced conscription, everyone went (more or less*) willingly, but nobody any any concept of the scale this war would eventually reach in violence, horror, duration, casualties, boredom, technical challenges, and on and on and on.

Apart from research of firsthand accounts, my inspiration while painting these two came from "Home" by Roger Waters (the single soldier painting borrows it's title from a line in that song) and "The Day After Tomorrow" by Tom Waits. Look them up.

In the Calamity section of my WWI painting project, these are the last two (or first two, depending on your perspective) of a group of three paintings that includes The Theatre of War.

*Of course, propaganda and peer pressure played a large role in convincing/shaming young men into going; you were heading for a grand adventure! it'll be over by Christmas! are you a real man or not? your chums are fighting, why aren't you?**

**This last one is an actual tagline from a propaganda poster

12 November 2014

Hangin' on the Old Barbed Wire

20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

Trench songs feature in a few pieces in my World War One painting project, but they're most prominent in this one and in "Why Are We Here?", having some of the words scratched into the paint.

I could have found image reference of an actual soldier tangled in barbed wire for this, but I decided to look through my photos from my trip to Italy last March, knowing there I'd taken a shot or two of Michelangelo's Pietà. My idea was to extract Jesus from Mary's embrace and string him up in barbed wire for my Remembrance section, emphasizing the theme of sacrifice. My sketch of the figure in my notebook looked wobbly and rough, but nice and alive and reminded me of Egon Schiele's drawing style, so I then chose to emulate his style for the figure in the final piece.

07 November 2014

Over the Top

16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014

Before I started my World War One painting project, whenever I came across the term "over the top" I thought of it referring to something that is "excessive or exaggerated," but after living with WWI for the better part of a year (researching, thinking, digesting, painting, etc.), I now think of the final scene from Blackadder Goes Forth:

And then I think of this quote from Richard Curtis, one of the writers of that series:

"All the buildup to the First World War was very funny, all the people coming from communities where they'd never bumped into posh people, and all being so gung-ho and optimistic...The first hundred pages of any book about the World War are hilarious...then, of course, everybody dies."

And then these lines from Pink Floyd's "Us and Them":

Forward he cried from the rear
    and the front rank died

The General sat, and the lines on the map
   moved from side to side

02 November 2014

Bang Bang

12" x 24", oil on wood panel, 2014, private collection

This was the painting I mentioned in my post for Children of Mars that I felt worked out much better than that painting, as this one portrays the innocence and vulnerability of the the young men who went off to war* in a simpler and more concise manner.

This is in the Calamity section of my World War One painting project, To the Sound of Trumpets, and it's one of my favourites, conceptually and technically.

*The average age of Canadian soldiers in WWI was 26.

01 November 2014

"Why Are We Here?"

20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

This one's from the "Remembrance" section of my World War One painting project, To the Sound of Trumpets. At first glance, appears to be a little on the sentimental side, something I promised not to do with these paintings, but I think the title of the piece and the lyrics scrawled on the helmet keep it from getting too weepy.

Parts of trench songs are quoted in or will be accompanying several paintings in this project, but those lines on the helmet are the entirety of the song, expressing the nihilistic futility (or, at least, the bewildering existentialism) many soldiers felt during the war. Trench songs were shared at base camps, while marching, and on the front lines, serving to bond the soldiers and to help alleviate their stress and their fears.

Click here to read some of the more well-known trench songs of WWI, and click here to hear some.