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Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Grandeur of Open Spaces: Clifford Bailey, Painter

by Mark Hummel
Despite merciless insistence on conformity from his paintings, an insistence that often results in the sound of a knife on whetstone before slicing a work-in-progress away from its canvas frame when the painting won’t conform to his vision, Clifford Bailey does not meet the stereotypical images typically conjured when thinking of a temperamental artist or a transcendental philosopher.  In fact he contradicts a good deal of artistic stereotype.  Soft spoken and unassuming, he is a man gracious with his time and quick to share his craft.  He is warm and open.  The explosion of emotion that brings out knife and whetstone is rare and directed more at what he sees as failures of technique than imagination.  More prone to wear Carharts or blue jeans than berets or beads, his nature seems conscious of and largely derived from the years he and his wife spent in poverty, working on one ranch or another or as a framer in any number of art galleries, anything to put food on the table while leaving time to pursue his art.  It is Bailey’s intent to create an emotional experience in all those who view his work, capturing and creating moments of transcendence.  This element of his work emerges as a natural product of his personality.  Bailey speaks of painters as members of a priesthood.  To the laymen, the image is appropriate, for they may well share the spirit released by a painting, but the ritual that aids in its conception often seems foreign and mysterious, almost magical.  It is, after all, the painter’s objective to create an illusion, not quite like that of the magician—though Bailey’s own “bag of tricks” is large.  The work is more serious and ceremonious than magic, illusion created by the painter’s ability to infiltrate the viewer’s heart by “striking a sympathetic chord in their spirit.”
A painter who is nearly entirely self-taught, hard work and steady devotion to craft have helped Bailey produce in excess of seventy large new pieces a year.  The demand for his work by collectors has grown consistently over the last quarter century, and despite an ability to command higher fees, his work is often sought after by art lovers who defy easy stereotyping as well.  It is a source of pride for Bailey that his work is as often purchased with a local meat packing plant worker’s bonus check as it is with what another might spend to pay Country Club dues.  He hopes in both worlds that he is “feeding the spirit” of those who view and enjoy his work. His friend and fellow painter David Newton says, “Since Clifford can’t meet each person in person, he allows the painting to be an emissary, an ambassador representing him.”  And, like an apparition, he does feel present within his work always and perhaps this helps explain why work that takes on frequented vistas seem transformed under his brush.  The viewer’s role is less ethereal, if no less mystical, alone in a created landscape that is alive and as universal as it is individual.  Bailey paints from within moments of personal transcendence and offers viewers to replicate that emotional experience in the viewing.
Bailey would tell you, however, that he merely paints what he sees, and what he has seen for nearly thirty years has been the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies.  Bailey’s view of this region is pure, capturing the essence of its timeless progression and tapping the root of why so many settle there while forgiving the faults their numbers have brought.  His painting of the region is no more conscious than the view he cherishes each day, but in his depiction of that view he captures the vision many in the region wish to hold of the place and of their lives within it.  Bailey knows a painter cannot pluck a sympathetic chord unless it already exists.  Like the guitars he collects, the instrument does not have to be touched, for if tuned with precision, a note sounding in the room will trigger a momentary tremor along the corresponding string.  His work initiates similar tremors in the public that identifies with his images, touching parts of themselves they may not consciously acknowledge.  Bailey recognizes that people live hectic lives, and if his paintings can offer a place of momentary calm, a place of solace, then his contributions have been great and the effort of the painting rewarded.
Bailey tries to create such a peaceful state of mind in his public by capturing those moments present in nature where he feels transcendence for himself.  Bailey’s art rests in realism, but realism is not replication.  He is clearly aware that ours is not a perfect world.  This is where his work becomes deceptive, for he always creates believability but he transforms reality by allowing the painted scene an uncluttered, intuitive transmission to the viewer’s heart.  He would rather offer alternatives to the strip malls and clutter of the contemporary Front Range than condemnations, realism designed to distill natural elements to their essence.  One see this distillation process most noticeably when he paints in the “designed realism” style, simple paintings with crisp lines, blocks of color that are often offered in shades inexact to the natural colors they represent, and thousands of tiny paint speckles where the color progression creates the light and shadow in the work.  Here one can see the early influence of Eyvind Earle on his work, a painter he met when he was nineteen and riding his bicycle to Scottsdale art galleries.  Earle championed a style where the clarity and definition in line and color creates a tranquil but haunting mood, work familiar to the public through his participation in Disney animation with films like “Sleeping Beauty.”  Clearly influenced in some work by Earle’s style, the result for the viewer of Bailey’s work is to suspect that his designed realism has altered the world depicted for the better.  Where Earle’s work was fantastical, sometimes eerie, Bailey’s is more like fairytale or an idealized vision of place.

In all of his work the world is a rather idealistic one, one where the placements of a painting’s individual features come for reasons of balance and composition, not replication.  One result is the viewer’s ability to place Bailey’s work anywhere that conforms to their experience—for many, the Colorado Front Range, for others, whatever mountain range memory holds as idyllic and innocent, and for some, a dreamed African savannah.
A central reason for our ability to place a Bailey painting anywhere within our nostalgia or imagined dreams or optimistic desires is the near absence of humans and their structures in his work.  People do not exist within Bailey’s paintings, and their trappings only linger in the form of thin fence lines or the glow of city lights otherwise hidden beyond a ridge at night, yet we know intuitively that these are scenes where in reality people are plentiful.  This is not the savannah nor even a remote Western ranch or wilderness landscape.  They are places well-trod by humans, even if the closest kin visible is in the presence of cows, tools used to provide scale.  A tractor or telephone pole might accomplish the same goal, but not in the world Bailey depicts.  Two or three cows are less obtrusive, throw long, natural shadows, and offer something more, a peaceful, almost contemplative presence.  Bailey’s world is a world uncluttered.  Its simplicity deceives us, drawing our attention to the whole painting as a unified expression.  It is a world so ancient it offers human necessities without human pollution.  His friend, David Newton, jokes that one reason people find Bailey’s work so comforting is that, spear in hand, his landscapes provide everything needed for survival—an obtainable meat source, rich vegetation, water, and enough distance and beauty to fill the soul.  With the absence of humans, he allows viewers to place themselves within the painting, explorers alone with their minds and hearts, creating a simultaneous feeling of expanse and isolation.
He shows the world as it could be, not necessarily as it is.  He allows us to see our world in its best light, where fruit depicted in a still life is freshly washed by an invisible hand and mountains in a landscape offer tranquility and hope, even when in the throes of a violent, fiery storm.  The idealism, together with our sense of isolation within his landscapes, blend to form a sense of timelessness in his paintings, almost as if seeing life nearer its formation.  The muted backgrounds of a Bailey still life suggest that the table upon which the fruit awaits could as easily rest in an ancient Grecian palace, his landscapes, a storm that could momentarily extinguish the lights of a modern city or release the fury of forces in operation near the world’s cradle.  There is a virginal quality to his work—places unspoiled, pure and inviting for their proximity to the past or to a place existent only in our dreams.  Where other talented landscape artists can replicate beauty or alter familiar images with experimental color schemes or the addition of figures to typify a historical period, he transforms familiar landscapes into places of universal desire or seemingly shared human longing.
To journey within a Bailey painting is to travel within an expanded world, both in scope and spirit.  Such expansiveness is nearly always present in Bailey’s work.  Most often he offers panoramic views that sweep hundreds of square miles and seldom contain many foreground objects to detain the viewer’s vision.  Such scope increases the sense of grandeur.  Perhaps it is the scale that helps create the accompanying sense of transcendence of time, and possibly, of spirit.  Bailey acknowledges respect for the Buddhist belief that individuals can experience moments of enlightenment directly, that in fact, all experience such moments but not all recognize them.  It is his desire to create a parallel awareness.  Bailey does so not through the addition of objects but through application of light and color.  The terseness of his art aids in this occurrence, for it demands more imagination from the viewer and provides opportunity for them to supply their own narrative for the painting.  Bailey’s drive extends beyond capturing a place to conveying an emotion, and in so doing he creates a place, one that evokes a transcendence of the physical and offers a brief sojourn of the spirit.  In a world where fewer and fewer vistas remain unspoiled, one where our lifestyles fail to allow us more than the occasional view of a magical sunset or to get out of our car and see the expanse of sky, we increasingly need the vision Bailey offers, a reminder of a world worth regaining.
"Late Summer" by Clifford Bailey (oil) 28" 22"
"Sun Bathed" by Clifford Bailey (oil & acrylic) 8" x 10"

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Someone to Lean On

by Mark Hummel

At eighty four and eighty five, as their bodies begin to betray them, they lean more heavily on one another.  Walking has grown laborious, confident footing increasingly uncertain, so each offers the other a steadying arm, convinced that together they can create stability.  Like dating teenagers, they hold hands as they walk.

The hands are thinner than they used to be, the veins more prominent and the age spots more numerous, but they have been holding hands a good long while now.  They have been married sixty four years.  They have been married longer than their average life expectancy would be were they born in Nepal or the Solomon Islands or nearly the whole of Africa.  Their fiftieth anniversary was fourteen years ago, that most recent era passed nearly reaching the mark where only 57% of US marriages last fifteen years.  They celebrated this fifty year milestone by taking their whole family to a favorite spot in Hawaii and daring them to keep up.  For their sixtieth anniversary, they took their children and spouses to Alaska.  They joke about the sort of trip necessary to properly celebrate a sixty-fifth year together.  Albert W. Leichliter and N. Jean Leichliter.  Al and Jean.  Jean and Al.  The names are offered in tandem by all who know them.  They are a couple.

I am their youngest child.  I have spent a lifetime observing them, a lifetime learning from them.  I attribute much of the success of my marriage, now in its 26th year, to watching and gleaning from their success.  My brother and his wife, as their marriage nears its thirtieth year, would say the same.  I would not speak in hyperbole when I state my belief that my parents belong together.  Each completes the other.

Staying married for sixty four years defines devotion and commitment.  Remaining in love for sixty four years is something else altogether.  When a couple remains steadfastly in love for sixty four years as they have, there is something to be learned from them.  My instruction arrives primarily by watching, for the longevity of their marriage is not something they talk about with regularity, and one quickly understands that sixty four years of marriage does not come as a great surprise to them—a thing expected, wanted, something worth working for.  If quizzed, they are more likely to express surprise at living so long, not at loving so long and so well.

The one lesson my mother consistently does pass along, has since I first expressed interest in a relationship and now extends as advice to her grandchildren, is to “always communicate.  Don’t ignore things.  Talk to each other no matter what, no matter if you think it is something hard to talk about.”  They still do.  When they travel to visit us, late in the night after everyone has gone to bed, I hear the hushed voices from their bedroom talking in that quiet space where couples secure themselves and the privacy of their married lives.  I have heard those hushed voices since childhood, the sound of two people putting away the day, sharing the concerns of parents and grandparents, planning the future and smiling over memories.  All their lives they have talked such, finding, among other things, the common ground wherein they can always provide a united front after consulting the other.

Their life together remains one where they seek each other’s consultation.  They do so because they respect one another.  While they are prone to the spats and sarcastic jokes familiar to anyone who lives closely for a long time—who has not or still does not tease their siblings or their teenage children relentlessly—such moments pass like brief rain showers.  I can say I have never, in forty eight years, heard either say anything ill about the other, have never encountered bitterness or a desire to be mean.  I know they argue at times—you can’t be human and not hold differing opinions—but they have learned how to let go of the arguments and never have they held differing positions against the other.  If anything, they find common ground, close ranks, and consult one another about how to move forward.

Recently, they made the decision to leave the house they have lived in for forty three years and move to an apartment where there are no stairs to negotiate and no lawn to mow or snow to scoop and where help is available should they need it.  This was no easy decision and no easy move, one that required sorting through belongings accumulated over a two lifetimes.  They made the decision together, each sacrificing a bit of what they might desire out of a stronger desire to ensure that the other was content and that the other’s needs were met.  I can only begin to imagine the stress and emotional discomfort, not to mention the shear exhaustion such a decision precipitated, yet they reached the decision together and faced the hurdles of it as a couple.  Can’t we all accomplish the impossible when we know the one we love is there alongside?  What better way to face what is difficult than in the presence of your best friend?

For watching them, it is evident they have remained friends along the way and desire one another’s company.  They remain active, as they always have, which is a likely explanation for the way in which they have always appeared ten or fifteen years younger than they are.  They do things together—travel, attend dance club, play cards with friends, go to the theater.  It is rare that they would so much as go to the grocery store without the other, for they enjoy one another.  They can still make the other smile and do so regularly.  They have found and capitalized on their common interests while still balancing their individual desires.  They have long maintained their individual friendships and service club commitments just as they once led separate work lives, for at the end of the day they knew they were returning to the person they wanted to spend their lives with.

Together they have traveled all over the world.  Now, in their elderly years, they still love to talk of the trips they have taken and the people they have met, often finishing one another’s stories or adding layers of detail.  Sometimes one’s story becomes the others at some point within the telling.  They speak of these travels with a fondness similar to how they speak of their family—their children and grandchildren who have been so central to their lives—and those who have passed as well, their parents and grandparents and siblings.  They share a long past and look upon it with fondness but don’t dwell there.  They have survived miscarriages and the deaths of parents.  They have come out the other side of illness.  They have endured difficult financial times.  They seem intuitive in their knowledge that active, productive marriages live in the present, informed by the past but not backward-turning.

As they grow older, when a moment of sadness comes over one of them, it is almost never because of their own ache or uncertainty or worry, but rather the worry over their spouse.  Like any of us who have loved truly, we can’t stand to see those we love in pain.  It is more acute than anything we might feel.  Such is the act of love.

As children concerned for their health, we frequently try and get our father to use a cane or walker.  He will, if pushed and if the immediate circumstances merit it.  Mostly my mother borrows his newly acquired walker to take the laundry down the hall.  Trips down the hall for laundry and weekly hair appointments for mom, a daily half hour on the exercise bike and regular trips to the Veteran’s Hospital across town for dad are about the only time they are apart now that they have reached their mid eighties and the milestone of a sixty four year marriage.  And since they are together, they’d rather take one another’s hand, take a hold of this one whom they have loved so well over a lifetime, buoyed by the warmth and the stability offered, the cherished certainty found in that grasp.
Al and Jean Leichliter (photo by Pam Leichliter)