If I were Queen

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I have always loved John Singer Sargent’s work. I have a book of his watercolors on my bookshelf which I refer to often, but his oil paintings of figures I search out to see “in person”.  So when I had the opportunity to see “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last summer (2015), I jumped at the chance. His colors are so rich and his figures look so grounded, graceful and comfortable in their own skin.

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I was lucky when I was at the exhibition.  It was busy, but not overcrowded.  I was able to spend quiet time with some old friends, and make some new ones.  I had never seen Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth which Sargent painted in 1889.

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Ellen Terry was a famed Shakespearean actor in London. Sargent had seen her performance in the role of Lady Macbeth and she agreed to pose for him in costume.  The robe was of green silk and blue tinsel adorned with thousands of beetle wings which created an iridescent effect. The colors in the painting were magnificent, highlighted by the gold trim, the impressive gold frame and the crown (which she never actually held over her head this way in performance…a dramatic pose devised by the painter). I decided to put an undercoat of gold to exaggerate this golden tone.

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When I saw the woman with the red locks and red-orange sweater tied around her waist approach the painting, I knew I had the proper audience that would connect directly to the painting. The stunning red braids in the painting looped with gold were mirrored by the young woman in front of the painting.

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I darkened the skirt of the woman in the background on the right, moved figures in the initial sketches to create the dramatic “V” from the foreground to the painting and the red-haired girl. After days of working on Lady Macbeth’s robes with translucent layers of thinned paint, I then worked on connecting the painting to the viewers with the reflections on the floor.

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The last stage was refining the details in the red curls of the museum guest and placing a glowing reflection around her, while making the other figures less defined.  If I were Queen was finished.

If I were Queen, oil on linen, 18″ x 24″, showcasing John Singer Sargent’s Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Exhibition

 

 

The Assignment

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The has been a very transformative year.  We moved north and have settled in a loft-like condo in the metro DC area.  I moved my studio into my every day living space.  And we just made it through Snowzilla, The Blizzard of 2016.  I do love an adventure.

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I started The Assignment right before the holidays when I was just settling in to my new space.  I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out painting in an alcove off the living room. I had been so spoiled by my private studio space over our garage at our last home. But we opted for more urban living and downsizing went with it.

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Heck, after months of turmoil moving everything in to storage after a quick closing and looking for a new home, I wasn’t sure if I could remember how to draw, let alone create a painting that I would love. When I am away from my art for too long, I always doubt my skill.  This time was no different. It never gets completely comfortable, thank goodness.

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But slowly I started craving my studio time again.  I took the metro in to Washington DC to The National Gallery of Art to see if that would shake up my creativity, and as I wandered through the elegant galleries of the west wing I spied Agostina by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.  I remembered when I had been in front of this particular painting a year ago, and a photo I had taken for future reference. I keep huge files from my museum wanderings.

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I went back home and reminded myself of what I saw.  Four women were deeply involved in the painting, notebooks in hand. But they weren’t writing they were looking and thinking…not a cell phone in site. I love these women.

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I guessed they had a common bond in their assignment, but they also were alike in their obvious interest in the art. I could sense their thoughtful contemplation.  They were each so different, yet they had a bond.

As I snapped away a man came rushing past the group.  The perfect foil for their quiet study.  They were at rest. I like to think I know them, although I can’t really. While I was painting them,  I became part of the group, and we were all communicating with Agostina, a very soulful image.

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Agostina Segatori was a famous artists’ model and the proprietress of a cafe in Paris in the second half of the 1800s.  She obviously knew Corot who painted this portrait and sat for Manet, Delacroix and Dantan. Van Gogh mentioned her in two of his letters.  It is believed they had a relationship in the spring of 1887, and he painted two portraits of her.

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And so these women of the twenty-first century connect with this enigmatic woman of the 19th.

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I love art museums where worlds collide in peaceful harmony.

Note:  After a quick run back to The National Gallery of Art to look at the work again, I realized I had made Agostina too bright.  I went back to my studio and took out some of the Disney princess aspect of my original attempt.  Although I don’t pretend to copy the works exactly, I think this version looks closer in mood to the master work.

 

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The Assignment, oil on linen, 40″ x 30″

A little touch up

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Sometimes you just have to go back and fix a few things.

I don’t often change a piece of art once I have deemed it “finished”.  Even if it stays on the walls in my own home, I usually leave it alone.  Once I let it go, it’s done.

But rarely, I will see something that from the beginning has stuck with me as just not quite there.  It has to nag at me for a while, but finally, possibly years later, I will pick up the chalk or paint brush and do a bit of editing.  Sometimes I will ruin it for good, but then again…

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Recently I was allowed to revisit “White Garden”, a favorite painting of mine that I did after a visit to Sissinghurst, a National Trust garden in Kent, England.  At the very end of painting the scene, when I wasn’t quite sure it was finished, I added a figure walking down the path.  A vision of Vita Sackville-West, the poet and gardening writer who created the garden in the 1930s.

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But it always caught my attention when I looked at the work, and over the years I realized she detracted from the real star…the magical white garden.  So this month, I removed her.  There is a hint of white where she was. Just part of the garden.  I am very pleased with the result. Your full attention is once again on the magnificent roses and garden beyond.

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Sometimes a tweak is more subtle.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was bothering me or if anything was really bothering me enough to try a change. It was more a lack of energy than anything else.

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A few hours later, a bit of work, and some additional strokes of conte, and it was much more agreeable to me. I’m not even sure why.

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It became more complex and layered and could join the other drawings in the series with pride. Sunflowers in a field.

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For now, I am happy with them.

The Museum Guard

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In art museums I have visited, there is always the presence of the guards watching the museum’s treasures. They try not to intrude on the experience, but keep a watchful eye on their charges.

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I recently went to see “Alex Katz, This Is Now” at the High Museum in Atlanta.  I love Katz’s work and had never seen so much together in one place. It was impressive, and the layout and scale of the exhibition was intimate yet grand. The show included 40 pieces, 15 that were unveiled for the first time. Most were large landscapes.

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I went on a weekday, and the museum was nearly empty.  But in every room, there were the guards, standing stoically by the work.

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I always wonder what they are thinking of, hour after hour, in the presence of great art.

Image 2When I go in to a museum gallery, I spend a lot of time just looking, not just at the art, but also at the people looking at the art.  And because it was so empty this time I especially noticed the guards.

This female guard was especially vigilant, standing where she could keep an eye on two adjacent galleries.

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I know they notice me as I come in and out of their space photographing not just the art, but also them.  They never question me or overtly acknowledge my presence. I find their aloof presence reassuring.

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Do they stay focused on the art?  Or are they wondering what they are going to cook for dinner that night?

 

 

 

Brown and White

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I am never sure what will be the subject of my next painting.  Sometimes I have a few images taped on my wall that I think may be possibilities.

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But until I strip the wrapping off a new canvas, I am never really sure what my next painting might be. These photos are from the gardens surrounding the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC.

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The inspiration for “Brown and White”  came from this same visit to the Hirshhorn this past March, but from inside the galleries.

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I hadn’t been to this museum in over a decade and had forgotten how much great sculpture there was.

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When I came across “Lick & Lather” (1993-94), a twin piece by Bahamian sculptor Janine Antoni, I was fascinated.  The brown bust is made from chocolate, and Antoni, known also as a performance artist, cast the piece and then licked the details and refinements in to the chocolate self-portrait.

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For “lather”,  she cast herself in soap, and then actually submerged the bust in a tub of water with herself and lathered the details in to shape.  Fascinating.

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When I saw the two pieces I immediately went to the wall to the left to read about the work.  Following me, a well dressed middle-aged black gentleman did the same thing, trying to identify what the pieces were all about. Part of the explanation for the pieces talks about our love-hate relationship with physical appearance.

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Several weeks later, the riots broke out in Baltimore over the death of a young black man while in police custody. It was one of several incidents that had been very troubling this year involving police misconduct against black individuals. I started thinking about the issue of race in this country, something that I have pondered more and more often in the last decade.  Having lived in the Caribbean in a West Indian society had made me even more conscious of the differences and challenges of race in our country.

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And of course, now that I live in the southern part of the United States where the issue of race is never far from the surface, I have pondered it even more.

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All of a sudden, the photo I had taken back in March 2015 at the Hirrshorn had a new impact for me.

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I chose it as reference to do “Brown and White” as my next painting. The color palate and simplicity of composition spoke to me as strongly as the underlying message. It was March when I saw the museum reference…the world was still brown and white, struggling to come out of winter in Washington.

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Somehow, everything just seemed to be obvious for the painting.

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“Brown and White”, 30 x 24″, oil on linen.

Paris Street Music

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Only in Paris…classical musicians hawk their wares (or CDs) outside La Comedie Francaise, just a few short blocks from The Louvre Art Museum.

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As I walked back to my hotel after visiting the Louvre, I heard the uplifting sound of strings in a nearby plaza. Edged by grand arched buildings sheltering cafes, people were sitting outside in the cool spring air listening to the musicians.  It was lovely.

Image 5I have had the photo of this scene taped up on my studio wall for over a year, and would often study it.  I loved the graphic pattern of the musicians against the red, gray and white backdrop.

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But even more, I loved the individuality of the musicians, sitting or standing amongst their cases and bags, concentrating on the music with looks of serene joy. There is nothing like an artist practicing their craft.

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Each musician had such a distinct personality. I found as I worked on them, I got to know each one, and made up nicknames for each.

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As I worked from left to right filling in the details, I got to know each one and their precious instruments.  I had never sketched or painted musical instruments before.  It was a struggle, but also an education…the different shapes, the different shades of wood.  And each player had their own stance that did suit the personalities I had conjured up.

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I wanted to create a rhythm and a visual movement to match the music I could hear in my head reminiscent of when I had actually been with them on that Paris street.

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With the unfathomable violence this past year in Paris, it made this scene even more serene and poignant in my memory.

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Each figure had a certain wistfulness.  Were they lost in the music or their own private musings?

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I would never really know for sure.

But it is rather like my paintings.  Each viewer will put their own story to it, create their own scenario surrounding the particular scene and figures.  Reality is always in the eye of the beholder.  If only that interpretation could always be peaceful.

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Like the “violet girl”, the details would build our understanding of the individual until they become more real, if only in our own mind.

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This painting took a very long time to paint for me.  It was two months of almost daily work.  Many hours were spent studying the figures and deciding how they worked alone and together, before completing the background.

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Finally, like a good orchestra, it all worked together in harmony.

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Paris Street Music, 36 x 24″, oil on linen.

 

In Monet’s Garden

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There are times when I just want to escape from what I call “trauma porn”, that constant bombardment of the dark, angry words and images so prevalent at this moment in our society.  It’s everywhere and it must sell well. I know there is distress and war and hardship in the world.  And that should never be hidden. But the media feeds on it, and it seems like lately there is not a healthy balance with the more introspective, peaceful side of our society.  There has to be an equal emphasis on good and what is enriching rather than only a biased focus on terror, anger and turmoil. How else will we be able to find our own personal balance?

What better place to contemplate the good than Monet’s garden, even if it is only at the Museum of Modern Art on a cold February morning.

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I actually began working on a very different painting right before New Year’s. People often ask me how long a painting takes to complete.  Well, it all depends.

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I was trying to come to grips with a scene I had noticed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Four women were sitting sketching and it intrigued me.  What a positive way to spend a morning. I worked on it for over a month.

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But it just never came together the way I wanted it to.  I couldn’t seem to find what Alex Katz (one of my favorite artists) calls the “inside energy”. This piece was not going there. I finally decided it was time to erase it from the expensive linen and begin again.  And what better place to go than Monet’s gardens.

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These Monets are at MOMA in NYC.  After my trip there in early February, I was drawn to these two extraordinary paintings.  The museum curators had moved them to a different gallery since the last time I was there, and it was quieter and more removed from the crowds.

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I found these two women each transfixed by “Water Lilies” and “Agapanthus”.  A recurring theme of mine in this series of paintings is how art and museums bring us to a more positive, introspective state.  No bi-partisan arguing. No shrill media. As far as I can tell almost everyone finds peace and tranquility with a Monet. And if they want to explore a darker side, there are other galleries and paintings that focus on that.  It’s all so civilized in a museum.

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When I start a painting I am concerned with what the artist David Salle recently described in an article as an “alignment of intention, talent and form”. He suggests the art of painting on canvas has returned to importance, if it ever left.  And these three values are what create a masterful painting.

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I know Monet has this in his work.  But do I?  Can I?

I constantly strive for that interior energy in a painting.  And my subject (or intent) is often an interpretation of ourselves attempting those perfect moments of contemplation. I’ll leave the dark side for others to explore for now. Monet certainly helps.

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“In Monet’s Gardens”, oil on linen, 36″ x 24″, with thanks to MOMA and Monet.

Art and Commerce

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It is always a delicate balance between the creation of art, and the financial swirl that may or may not surround it.  Being at Art Basel and Art Miami made me even more aware of that.  For commercial galleries the emphasis on sales and collectors is obvious. But what of museums? The balance between exhibitions and ticket sales must always be on their minds.

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This scene at MOMA in New York City last February (2014) illustrates it beautifully.

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Above is London-based Isaac Julien’s immersive film installation Ten Thousand Waves.  It was astounding to see the vibrant, moving images projected on to 9 double-sided screens on the level above the main entrance lobby and ticket area.

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No matter where you went through the museum that day, it would etch into your vision, interweaving contemporary Chinese culture with its ancient myths

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Like the person leaning on the railing above on the edge of the Marron Atrium, I would wander in and out of the staging area, being as interested in the music and sounds, as well as its sequenced images.

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Below on the main floor of The Museum of Modern Art, people are at the desk waiting for information and tickets, anxious to get to the scene above. Art and commerce…always a tenuous connection.

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Ten Thousand Waves was conceived as a “reflection of the movement of people across continents”. A lofty attempt to explore our world. A world that must also include the financial realities of art.

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My painting Above and Below, 24 x 36″, oil on linen.

Art Basel 2014

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On our second day in Miami we went over to the Miami Beach side of the Art Fair scene.  We made a quick stop on Lincoln Road near South Beach.  I wanted to see The Art Center, an artist’s studio venue that will be moving in April.  The artists are quite sad to lose this great location but progress is moving big stores into the valuable real estate. Apple and J Crew are replacing this eclectic space.

Had some great conversations with artists here wondering where to go next. Finding a spot near patrons who buy art, with studio space an artist can afford is a common dilemma.

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Then it was on to the massive 2014 Art Basel art fair at the Miami Convention Center around the corner and down the street.

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Eric Fischl’s new works portraying art fair visitors were scattered through the gallery displays. They intrigued me.  He had started this series sometime around the time I was just getting in to my gallery/city series. It is interesting to see a different take on the art scene, so much a part now of modern life.

Another artist that was prominently shown whom I admire was David Hockney.

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His English landscapes can be hauntingly familiar from my travels.

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My Beloved Brit and I had seen the start of this Yorkshire countryside series on a trip to London several years ago, so it was like visiting old friends.

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Many of them are printed from iPad renderings, and the colors are vivid. Hockney is always playing with new techniques and new technology.

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But, moving on, one thing I noticed this year, were how many monochromatic and black & white pieces there were.  Very diverse in subject and style, but black & white none-the-less. This was one of my favorites of the day.  Each bit of straw had a wonderful quote or saying on it. You could stay for hours just reading the bits of wisdom.

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The monochromatic nature theme persisted. This huge piece is charcoal on paper (with me reflected in the glass).

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Sometimes an accent of color was added.

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Is this trend a reaction to climate change?  I am not sure.

There were of course classics and Fairfield Porter is one of my favorites. It was a joy to see a room with several of his works I had never seen before.

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That’s the beauty of Art Fair.  You see the new work, but you also discover older pieces that the galleries are trying to sell, and even classics.

There was this little minimalist gem that caught my attention right at the end…

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Basel also had rows and rows of unfathomable art that I couldn’t begin to comprehend.  But I still gravitate to the pieces that relate directly to my world.  I know there is a place for the other, but these are the ones I connect to.

All in all it was a very full day. These two galleristas agree.

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Art Miami 2014

A full day of art in Miami, and I couldn’t be happier.

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It is always fun to come down to Miami in December and see the gigantic art fair hosted by the city.

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Yesterday my friend and I did “Art Miami”, set up in a huge row of tents near the Wynwood Art District.

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It was grand, and gave me a chance to see new creative output from an international representation of galleries.

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It was varied this year, and I found there were less “gimmicks” in the art represented, and more emphasis on color and form.

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It will be interesting to go to Art Basel at the convention center in Miami Beach to see what they have to offer.

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The only negative I heard while visiting…there is a lot of talk about how the local Miami art scene is struggling.  Galleries and artists are leaving the area, finding it hard to compete with the huge international fairs. Real estate prices in the art districts are rising, moving the artists and galleries to other locations.  With the same thing happening in Brooklyn right now, it is difficult to know where artists can find a receptive audience for their work, and continue to create. I know they’ll find a way.