Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Funeral in India

"The promise" by John Paul Thornton

Dedicated to the light that shines in India.

This large painting depicting a Hindu cremation ceremony is all I can offer.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Find The Vein: Disciples of Saul Bernstein

[ John Paul Thornton stands before his installation of Missing Children portraits.]

It was my honor to curate a powerful exhibition at Katalyst Foundation of the Arts in Los Angeles, called "Find The Vein- Eight Artists Reunite With Their Mentor."

The "mentor" is American artist and educator Saul Bernstein.

The "Eight Artists" are:
Dan Caplan,
Dan Milnor Gonzales,
Ashley Laurence,
Paul Lasaine,
Steve Montiglio,
Laura Peisner,
Diane Nebolon Silver
and myself.

What impact, really, do our instructors have upon us?
Like a fiery-eyed old -testament prophet, Saul Bernstein not only preaches to his students, but over time laid the seeds that have made a vital impact on the art world. As a professor teaching at California State University at Northridge through the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, Bernstein’s classes were packed beyond capacity with two generations of kids who were desperately searching for “meaning” during eras of post-pop minimalism and Boom-time excesses. Bernstein is renowned today for his development of digital imagery as an art form, as well as for his relentless and mind-expanding research into the “secrets” of the old European masters of painting. Young artists who crossed paths with him seem to bare an indelible mark.

Katalyst Foundation presents some of Saul Bernstein’s newest oil Paintings and digital drawings, alongside select works created by former students, including five paintings created by myself. This is a bold display of bloodline; a grouping of eight prodigal sons and daughters who have had two decades to forge their own path, nourished by the teachings of their former mentor.

In the literature printed for the show, I wrote: “At night, laying in bed in the dark, a mountain Sherpa might be compelled to ask himself the most pressing question: Did he safely guide his party up to the top peak? Was the trail the right one? Did the expedition reach the summit?
For a teacher of painting, the question could be even more compelling, because there is no “right” trail. There is no true peak. Still, the results of a misguided expedition might result in legions of students marching off of a cliff, or worse, starving in the vastness, clinging to false maps, searching without purpose.
Saul Bernstein- Professor, Artist and Mentor, played a role as guide to the eight other painters in this exhibition, who each reunite here, after twenty years, to bare testament to the expedition they set out upon. Former students might lay in bed in the dark, and be compelled to ask the pressing question: What wisdom took root within us? Were we able to read the prized map? Did we find our own sure footing? Did we stay firmly on the trail, or forge our own?”

This is an exhibition that ponders questions about the essence of education. Saul Bernstein himself exclaimed upon viewing the show, “I did not indoctrinate!” Each artist in the show stands uniquely and individually free from “A School”. But the Vein is there, running through the art, manifesting most mightily in the solution of representational imagery, the use of human figure as a delivery system, and color, whether vibrant of delicate, as a device of seduction. Each artist shares recollections about their experiences with Bernstein, which appear to have made a deep impact.

A view of "Find The Vein" exhibition.

The stunning work by Dan Milnor Gonzales, who creates his surreal drawings directly onto traffic cones.

Each traffic cone features compelling references to mythology, biblical prophesy, and the human figure.

During the vibrant Downtown Los Angeles gallery row Art Walk, thousands of viewers and collectors make pilgrimages to the broad clusters of exhibition spaces.

Artist Dan Caplan , with his latest figurative paintings.

Each artist featured in the exhibition share a link: They all worked closely with Saul Bernstein.

["Orphan"copyright Steve Montiglio]

Artist Steve Montiglio is represented in the "Find The Vein" exhibition with his large work on aluminum panels, "Orphan". On either side hangs artworks by Saul Bernstein.

[Detail of "Lara", copyright by Saul Bernstein]

Saul Bernstein's artworks are simply gorgeous. His surfaces relate the visually entrancing light of Gothic-era stained glass to our own computer age. After decades of research and analysis, his true discoveries ring confidently and with a sense of joy.

As curator of the exhibition, there was a wonderful sense of discovery while putting this show together. Each artist maintained a real respect for their former teacher, while discovering their own voice. It was , for me, the chance to pass through a great door, to assess my own path, and to literally look across two decades of my life and reunite with friends.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

National missing children's Day

["Portrait of a Missing Girl" by John Paul Thornton]

A little girl I knew was abducted.
I was very affected emotionally, and when I looked around my home town in the following days, I finally noticed all of the little fliers asking for help finding missing children. ( In America there are 1,500 missing child cases open every day. The fliers are often printed on the backs of coupons and are distributed as junk-mail.)

I just began saving the fliers, and after a year had a drawer full of them: Disposable mailers with tiny monochrome photos of missing children. It didn't seem right that these faces were so small and bland.

One night, out of nowhere, I was inspired to paint a full color portrait from one of the cards. As an artist, the question was this: How does a person paint a portrait of a missing child? I could not just approach it like an illustration. I could not just go about it as if it were a polite painting.

I began by throwing away my brushes. They were too smooth. Too pretty. Too controllable. Instead, I began using palette knives. They were difficult to control and allowed for unexpected deviations. At times, I laid out my palette and created these in very dim lighting. Surely the way a person is painted may reflect the circumstances of the person...At times the process becomes very emotional for me. Each portrait may take as many as thirty of forty sessions, as each layer adds to the depth. It's like taking the long way home. The long process avoids superficiality. I think that the complexity of the paint reflects the complexity of the child's situation.

Years later, I have painted hundreds of missing children.

I have met many families who thank me for painting their child. They found comfort in knowing that "someone" was thinking about their family.
Occasionally, A recovered teen will write me. They find it fascinating that a stranger was compelled to paint them during their darkened childhood.

Actually,To me, these paintings are about love.

[Missing Children portrait Exhibition- John Paul Thornton]

Friday, April 25, 2008

Final Portrait of a Dancer

[ Portrait of Skipp by John Paul Thornton]

Skipp stood before the south light of the window and struck a dance pose. I blocked in the planes of the drawing while we talked about his love for living. Within a few hours a stray beam of sun that had been slowly advancing along the wall finally struck his torso and shoulder. A few thick strokes of alizarin crimson and ochre paint had to express the effect. Minutes later, the beam had passed.

My friend Skipp died this week, in hospice with his mother at his side. I saw today at a friend's home, for the first time in nearly four years, this portrait of him that we collaborated on back in 2004. At the time, his health was in check. He was the most gentle person. A dancer, singer, traveler and positive spirit. Good bye Skipp.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Arte y los Ninos de Taxco

[John Paul Thornton with art students in Taxco Mexico]

The greatest high I have ever experienced is teaching art to children. Better still is standing back and allowing the children to flex their own power, and watching them go.

As part of a cultural exchange with Mexico, I traveled with a group of artists and educators
during Semana Santa, Holy Week, to the city of Taxco. Led by Stuart Vaughan from the Canoga Park Youth Arts Center, a facility of the Los Angeles Department of cultural Affairs, we were hosted by the "Friends of Taxco", part of the Sister Cities International Program. Taxco itself is gorgeous and magically intact as an historic silver mining town and Baroque Spanish colonial city. Architecture, music and civic religious pageantry aside, the highlights of the trip included opportunities to teach art and create art workshops for the city's children.

We brought art supplies for hundreds of participants, and had the exciting impromptu opportunity to set up a drop-in art workshop on the main zocolo in front of the Santa Prisca Church on Easter morning.

The atmosphere was festive and lively. After days of solemn processions of black hooded penitents, clowns and bands now took to the streets. Every family in town came to the zocolo and stumbled upon our open art workshop. Tables filled immediately.

Hundreds of children participated. It was so inspiring to meet everyone, and hear the gratitude of the families.

[ Los Angeles Artist and educator Laura Peisner and a new friend in Taxco]

The following day, our group of artists from Los Angeles visited the Jardin de Ninos Tonatiuh, a school perched high on the steep mountainside in Taxco. We were all able to teach art classes to the students. I worked with watercolor painting and wax resist. the children were a joy. The Principal and staff at the school joined us.

Here I am, demonstrating how to load the brush...
We created images reflecting the environment and the landscape around Taxco. The students are not used to art on a regular basis, so this was a new treat for them.

We also presented the first stage of a mail art exchange program between students of Taxco and Canoga Park, Los Angeles, designed to begin relationships between 160 participating students and teachers.

All of the artists and educators representing Canoga Park are so amazing. Their ability to work with any age level and any child is astounding. The children were amazing too. So positive, engaging and filled with joy! By the end of the day, students were taking home arm fulls of art.
As a gift, we made donations including suitcases filled with painting supplies to the school.
We were all invited to return and create projects with further meaning and scope.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Semana Santa In Taxco Mexico

A celebration in Mexico carries with it remnants of Aztec pageantry and the belief that blood is the conduit which prayer requires to travel from Earth to the realm of the divine. At the same time it is bound by the Catholic Spanish traditions that wove a tight connection to the Mexican people.

I spent Holy Week in Taxco, a fantastically intact hill town, 200 kilometers south of Mexico City.
Known as a silver mining hot spot, each Semana Santa, the streets take on the air of the Inquisition and it's people partake in one of the most visually and spiritually stunning pageants in all the world. For four days and nights leading up to Easter Sunday, processions of penitentes provide spectacle and assault to pilgrims and visitors.

My traveling party consisted of artists and educators in connection with the Taxco/Canoga Park Sister City International program and the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Also joining us was my wife Martina and my three year old daughter, Lorelei. We knew that Semana Santa was a remarkable time to visit Taxco, but coming from an American culture that celebrates Easter with jelly beans and marshmallow bunnies, we were to experience a profound jolt.

Taxco itself is picturesque and charming. There is an intimacy and historic richness that washes over visitors, especially in the main town center, or "zocolo". children frolic. Old men dream on benches and women sell baskets beneath the Baroque church of Santa Prisca. Birds chatter in the trees. After a leisurely stroll we were surprised when the Thursday evening penitente procession entered into the main zocolo as bells rang.

The festive balloon sellers and ice cream vendors gave way to make room for a man naked from the waist up, except for a black hood which hid his face from the gawking crowds. Upon his bare shoulders was strapped a 100 pound bundle of thorny zarza branches, causing him to hold his arms out as if crucified. He was followed by groups of men similarly clad, who carry varnished wooden crosses. At points along the route, they stopped to kneel in the streets and flagellate themselves with barbed whip. Bright crimson blood drips steadily from their fresh wounds. A drummer beats a solemn rhythm and a violin scratches a haunting tune from hell.

"Oh my god," I hear myself shout. "It's started." All around me, people rush to line the streets, camera cellphones click. The surreal torturous scene from a Goya Painting unfolds before us...

Then a sweet cluster of children in shimmering satin robes climbs the cobblestone street behind them. Feathered angel wings and smiles, they are the peaceful symbols of hope and redemption before the next group in the procession emerges: scampering black shrouded women, stooped over like animals, carrying long luminous candles. Their bare feet are shackled with chains, which jingle as they shuffle. They move in long twin lines down the lanes.

Then, carried aloft on the shoulders of a dozen men, a platform supporting a ten foot tall carved crucifix seems to float by. it is decorated with miner's hats and silver,along with vibrant roses and sun flowers. It is the first of over seventy carved life size crucifixes that I would see that night. More drums, violins, candlelit angels and hooded penitents. More blood.

It was the following day, Good Friday, that we were to view the procession of penitents in the early evening daylight. Hundreds of participants reenacted Christ's suffering, either for personal reasons of chastisement , family obligation or pure devotion.

The procession ended with a coffin containing a sculpture representing the dead body of Christ, and finally the Virgin.

The respect I have for this passionate celebration of suffering and pain is great. The questions of religion, devotion and spirituality that this event evokes have still yet to be processed by my mind and heart. Which ways point to God best?

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Bell Ringers

[ Bell Ringer, detail by John Paul Thornton]

What does the uprising of Tibetans against the government of China mean to you? Have you been watching the Internet news? Does a crumbling bumper-sticker proclaiming the liberation of Tibet register anymore to anyone? Could anyone be shocked by the new images of sweet Tibetan monks torching businesses ? Could anyone be surprised by the Chinese promises of swift authoritarian response?

Symbolically, it is a struggle of heart and mind. Shall the ability to use violence override the Buddhist core issue of peaceful detachment? Shall the government in Beijing react with the same strategy of force, to crush this rebellion as the world awaits a supposedly enlightened Summer Olympics? The story of the recent violence and demands from both sides may be examined
in this article, along with photos from the Associated Press.

I lived in a Tibetan refugee settlement in Nepal.
Most Tibetans I met with spoke of "the Chinese" as nameless, heartless reapers of unspeakable doom. Can one be a Buddhist and hate? I wondered. Of course, I never asked this question aloud of my new friends and hosts. I was just a guest and I chose to experience the views of the Tibetans without voicing my opinion to them. Tibetans have seen their way of life practically obliterated since 1959.

More recently, I spoke in Beijing, China, where "Tibetans" were referenced the way insensitive Americans might speak dismissively of native "Indians" who now have found their place in the cosmic order, apparently happily running casinos.
"What Tibetans? There aren't any Tibetans", I was told by a a Chinese friend. "The Tibetan region is simply China now", he explained, "The people of the Tibetan culture are so much better off now that there are proper grocery stores and paved roads leading to the formerly isolated plateau. We bring them education and real hope." Again, I chose to listen, as purely as I could, without prejudice. It was hard.

As a traveler, I have always taken what I feel to be a road of reflection rather than exertion.
I have always felt that, as an American, my views on the matter would be wildly simplistic, or meaningless. Of course I would exhort freedom. The thought of what the American government ( and Spanish government ) did to the native cultures on the North American continent becomes more distasteful and incomprehensible each day I grow older. We "root" for justice in the Tibetan region because our own history shows us that the cultures we wiped out in America were more meaningful and reverent than a thousand modern strip malls and Kentucky Fried Chickens could ever be. Why take a pristine Himalayan meadow sprinkled with picturesque stone monasteries and fuck it up with an asphalt parking lot, a disco and a pool hall? Weirdly, we watch as China commits acts of governing that were formerly that of our great great grandfather's. We want it to stop. We know better now, we say.

And again, I ask, is a Tibetan follower of the Buddha allowed to burn buildings? Or can anger and uprising in fact become the highest tools for good? Don't scold me. I am just asking. I am just an American. Would the Buddha sit quietly, cross-legged under his tree? Was he ever required to fend off an army? Would he have? Should he have?

Somehow, in all of us perhaps, in our collective memory or in our present gut, there resides a strange comprehension of steps each party takes to achieve either "freedom" or "Unity". The idea that we are supposed to evolve as a planet is tested when regions live out their own personal genocide stories. Will Tibet stand alone?

Does morality come from an inner pang within our gut, or is it taught to us as a set of selected axioms. Does a person need to be one-sided to be moral? Does being one-sided provide focus, or spiritual sanctity? Does morality mean to stop imagining the world through the eyes and heart of your enemy? I am just wondering.

While working closely with the Tibetan refugee community in Nepal, I created a series of larger than life-sized paintings of monks, each carrying bells. I named this series "The Bell-Ringers". To me, they represent not only archetypes of steadfast courage, but are personal reflections of a few real individuals I had the honor to meet and live with in the settlements. I think that these paintings also convey, in a pictorial sense, the old proverb that speaks of implication, responsible action and the softly creeping realization that 'You cannot un-ring a bell...' The world is watching. The world has video cameras now, along with the internet and YouTube.

You cannot un-ring a bell.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Amnesty International: Homage to Women

I am honored that my painting "In The Light" will be included in the Amnesty International exhibition, "Presente! Homenaje a la Mujer" at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, Los Angeles.

Here is some information about the exhibition:

The Aliados con Amnesty network of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) and Avenue 50 Studio present ¡Presente! Homenaje a la Mujer, a group exhibition including nearly 100 artists from the U.S. and around the world. The exhibition includes a variety of 2-D and 3-D art by both male and female artists. The exhibition coincides with International Women’s Day. Its purpose is to celebrate women and to create awareness of AIUSA’s Stop Violence Against Women Campaign.

The Aliados con Amnesty network is a group of young Latino activists engaged in promoting human rights and to inspire activism. Avenue 50 Studio is a non-profit art gallery located in Highland Park that enhances public recognition and appreciation of multicultural art. The exhibition is being organized by three women: Kathy Gallegos, Director of Avenue 50 Studio; Julissa G√≥mez, AIUSA Field Organizer; and Liliana Herrera, AIUSA Latino Outreach Coordinator. All of whom are passionate about “artivism”, the idea of activism through art.

The show promises to be very expressive and diverse. I will be speaking at the artists talk
Thursday March 13th.