Evan X. Merz

musician / technologist / human being

Tagged "art"

What Will Come from the Vacuum

This week What Will Come from the Vacuum is being played in Trauenkirchen, Germany, as part of a exhibition called Physik und Musik. This piece was written as a response to images of scientific equipment.

Prayer of the Desert by Pete Martinez

Due to the air quality, they closed the pool this weekend, so Erin and I didn't know what to do with the girls. It occurred to us that we've never really taken them out to weekend yard sales before. So we looked up a few local yard sales and drove around to each one.

At the Eagles Club rummage sale, I found a storage container full of power tools on one side, and stacks upon stacks of framed prints on the other side. In my head I said, "I bet if I sort through all of this, I will find one piece that is worth taking home."

And boy was I right. Buried under empty frames, and some nice decorative pieces, I found this beautiful Pete Martinez etching.

I didn't know Pete Martinez off the top of my head, but when I saw the etching I knew it was better than all the other stuff in the storage container. It had a reasonable price of $125 on it, but they were selling everything for 75% of, so I got it for a cool $31.

Picture of the California artist Pete Martinez

Pete Martinez was actually Pedro Pablo Martinez. He was born in California in 1894, and he worked as a cowboy, ranch hand, and show rider for much of his life. He made his living driving cattle in the summer and creating art in the winter. He fought in the first world war, and retired to his own ranch in later life.

The Archer by Quincy Tahoma

The Archer, a painting by Quincy Tahoma.

Quincy Tahoma painted The Archer in 1944. He was 27 years old, but the government thought he was 24, and he was happy to go along with the deception. He liked being the young Navajo artist whose talent couldn't be kept on the reservation. But he was living multiple lives, and that became obvious in 1944.

Tahoma wanted to fight in the war, but a childhood injury that severely limited the use of his left arm prevented him from doing so. As a native speaker of the Navajo language, the government thought he could be useful in intelligence work, and called him up in 1943, but they soon sent him home for reasons that remain unclear. So in 1944 he disseminated several conflicting stories about his war service.

Tahoma was accustomed to leading a double life. As a student at the Santa Fe Indian School he always had one foot in his native Navajo culture, and one foot in white America. After his father died, he was raised partly by an aunt, and partly by several boarding schools that taught Native Americans to integrate into white society. He found art through an incredibly influential teacher named Dorothy Dunn. As an artist, Tahoma relied on white America for his income. Tourists flocked to New Mexico to see and experience Native American culture while they could. Tahoma was happy to paint the pictures that they wanted to see, pictures of a proud native heritage that mixed cultures and drew on all of his life experience.

In 1944 he was the darling of the New Mexico art scene. He was featured in a short film, and he worked for the Museum of New Mexico, painting scenes of early humans.

A page from the biography of Quincy Tahoma that shows some of his illustrations.

The Archer shows off Tahoma's confidence, but it also reveals his immaturity. It shows a confident, clear-eyed hunter who bags his prey, as we can see in the cartouche. But the composition is flat and one dimensional, lacking the drama of his best paintings. Also, Tahoma mistakes the musculature of the archer's right knee.

Still, it reveals some of the techniques that made Tahoma famous. The sequential art in the cartouche is exquisite. The mixture of inking and painting techniques lends the painting an illustrative quality. The bird in the upper left defines the frame as in so many Tahomas. And the characteristic blue-green of the archer's loin cloth is still as brilliant as the day it was painted.

Quincy Tahoma's signature on The Archer

The Archer isn't the best painting by Quincy Tahoma, but it displays a blossoming talent. It reveals a young artist who has yet to face alcoholism, and who hasn't yet reckoned with the consequences of his double lives.

2020 Changed Me

2021-01-01, Evan X. Merz

I have so much to say about 2020 that I'm not quite sure how to say it. The year was simultaneously fantastic and terrible for me and my family. A lot of good things happened to me to 2020, and I was able to avoid a lot of the worst things that were happening around the country.

I'm having a hard time talking about 2020 because, among so much suffering, my family actually did pretty well. Nobody in my family died of COVID. My kids are doing well with remote learning. My wife and I have begun volunteering in our community, and really getting to know our community. I even got a promotion at work.

I want to talk about all of this, but it feels like gloating. The pandemic is not over yet. There are so many people still suffering so much due to the negligence, stupidity, and incompetence of our elected Republican leaders.

So what can I say?

I can say that 2020 changed me. It changed me in a lot of ways.

One of the odd, quirky traits that I developed during lockdown is a passionate interest in 20th century Navajo artists, especially those taught at the Santa Fe Indian School by Dorothy Dunn. This includes people like Harrison Begay, Woody Crumbo, and Allan Houser. But for me, the best among them was Quincy Tahoma.

I don't know how this interest developed, but it's so unusual that it's the one thing I feel comfortable writing about at this point. Which is a long winded way of saying that, although I'm no expert, I'm going to write about some of the art that I've fallen in love with in the past year.

Over the Hollow Log by Quincy Tahoma

Over the Hollow Log, a painting by Quincy Tahoma.

Quincy Tahoma painted Over the Hollow Log in 1947. This painting shows an artist at the peak of his skills. Everything about this image is characteristic of the best Tahoma paintings. But why was he doing his best work in 1947?

In 1947 Tahoma was 30 years old. He was a famous artist in New Mexico, and he had achieved a measure of national success by winning a prize from the Philbrook Museum in 1946. But he was facing the first great challenge of his life as a consequence of his growing dependence on alcohol.

The reason Tahoma painted some of his best pieces in 1947 is because he was sober. The reason he was sober is that he was in prison. The reason he was in prison is because he was accused of rape, and the story reveals something about Tahoma's character, and about how the criminal justice system treated Native Americans in the mid 20th century.

Here's how Charnell Havens and Vera Marie Badertscher summarized the incident that landed Tahoma in prison in 1947 in Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist.

On New Year's Eve 1946, he had many successes to celebrate. He liked to socialize and his celebrations often involved too much drinking. He would sober up – sometimes in jail – and then get back to life. This time, however, the party got out of control…

On New Year's Day, a Wednesday, Mrs. Hobbs complained to the police that her daughter was missing. When the sheriff, aided by the state patrol, located the girl in Albequerque on that same day, she "told her story" according to the Santa Fe newspaper. She said a Navajo artist named Quincy Tahoma had offered her whiskey and raped her. The police quickly located Tahoma and held him in the Santa Fe jail until court convened on Friday, January 3…

Quincy Tahoma stood alone in the courtroom, probably not feeling well after the New Year's Eve celebration, and someone in the court or the District Attorney's office advised that he could plead guilty to a lesser plea. No defense attorney appears in the court paperwork so it is doubtful that anyone explained his options to him. No one suggested that if he thought the charges were unfair, he could plead not guilty. No transcript of witnesses appears, and the trial did not take long.

Tahoma was accused of raping a 16 year old girl named Vonnie Hobbs who had been out with him on New Year's Eve. He pled guilty and received a sentence of two to five years. His signature appears on none of the documents related to the case.

But prison was not so bad for Tahoma. In fact, if we judge that period of his life based on his artwork, it was the best period of his life. Tahoma was a famous prisoner, and he was well known to the warden and the guards. The guards purchased supplies for him, and he was able to paint every day. Since painting was all he cared about, he was not much bothered by being in prison.

He gave some paintings to the warden and the guards for additional privileges. Other paintings were taken out of prison and sold by various friends. Over the Hollow Log is almost certainly a painting that Tahoma produced while in prison.

Tahoma's work outside prison was becoming quite inconsistent. His drinking was lending some paintings an unfinished or sketchy quality. None of his prison work reflects this drop in quality.

The painting is one of Tahoma's best because it reflects his mastery of single page storytelling. It depicts a Native American man wearing a concho belt shooting a second arrow into a buck, while his horse and the buck leap a rotting log. The deer breathes its last breath while a scared rabbit runs out of the log. In the cartouche we can see that the hunter has managed to bring down the deer, as he has tied his kill to the back of his mount.

The signature on Over the Hollow Log

So much of this image is Quincy Tahoma flexing the techniques he had mastered by 1947. The background is plain, unpainted paper, but the scene is framed by three birds in the sky. The composition and drama of the scene reflects elements that were palatable to him, and were easy to sell to tourists. The horse and deer are painted using a mixture of painting and inking techniques that are still so evocative today. The image almost looks like an illustration from a comic book or pulp novel. The small animal running away appears in so many Tahoma paintings. One of his most oft repeated subjects was a horse being scared by a skunk or other small animal. The dress of the hunter is also typical of Tahoma, with the characteristic flourescent blue-green loin cloth that appears in almost every Tahoma depiction of Native Americans in traditional dress.

The depiction of the tree in this painting is remarkably life-like. Tahoma preferred to paint stylized plants and trees. His depiction of a realistic tree in this painting is one thing that makes it stand out among his other works.

Tahoma lived many lives. After the war he had an increasingly difficult time keeping his lives separate. In 1947 his double lives continued. He was simultaneously a prisoner whose basic freedoms had been taken away, and a successful artist creating the best work of his life.

Painted during his time in prison, Over the Hollow Log is one of the best pieces created by Quincy Tahoma.

The Last Jump by Quincy Tahoma

The Last Jump, a painting by Quincy Tahoma.

Quincy Tahoma painted The Last Jump in 1954. The subject matter and execution issues reflect the problems in Tahoma's life.

The scene should be familiar to any Tahoma fan. The painting shares a title with a famous Tahoma print. In fact this scene is one he painted frequently because it was easy to sell. A man is trying to break a horse, but the horse is startled by a small animal, a bunny in this case, and the man is thrown by the horse. We can see that he is thrown in the cartouche.

The signature on The Last Jump

The painting has some of the hallmarks of Tahoma's best works. It depicts the most dramatic moment of the effort, where the story could end in success or failure. The horse is nearly flawlessly executed. The poses of the horse and the man are extremely three dimensional, with limbs jutting out at the viewer, and flailing in dramatic ways. The drama is what separates Tahoma's work from his Navajo contemporaries, who often favored flat or static scenes.

Yet when you spend a little more time looking at this painting, you can see that something isn't quite right. It looks like the paintbrush slipped when painting the horse's left nostril and there's a black splotch right next to it. The torso of the man is unfinished, with the outline missing from his right side, and his abs hastily outlined with a liner brush. The green of the man's loin cloth is flat green, as opposed to the bright, multifaceted green that he almost always used for the same piece of clothing in his other paintings.

What happened?

Quincy Tahoma died in 1956 due to complications of alcoholism. In 1954 he drank and painted every day. His work from this time is quite inconsistent. These inconsistencies mar this image. When I look at this image I see a painting that was started in the morning, when he was sober, then hastily finished in the evening when he was drunk. The pose, the horse and the headdress are almost flawlessly planned and executed. This headdress is one of the most spectacular I've ever seen in a Tahoma painting, and the horse reveals Tahoma's skill at capturing the animals.

I imagine Tahoma taking a break after painting most of the picture, continuing to drink, then returning to finish it. He hastily filled in the loin cloth with a basic green straight from the bottle. Then he dabbed some black into the horse's nostrils, but his arm slipped and he splotched it. Then he got angry and decided to do the signature. His arm slipped when making the top of the 5 and he dragged it across where the 4 would go. He took his time and finished the cartouche strong, but then he noticed that he forgot to finish the man's torso. Using the same narrow brush he used for the cartouche, he quickly outlined the man's muscles. Even then, he still forgot one small inner line.

Of course this narrative is pure fancy, but the story told by this painting is plain: the man failed to tame the horse just as Tahoma failed to tame his alcoholism.

Glitching Images in Processing

This summer I'm going to release a new album of solo electronic music that is heavily influenced by EDM and classic rock. For the past few weeks I've been trying to figure out what to do about the art on the new album.

The album is called "FYNIX Fights Back" so I decided to use images of animals fighting, but I didn't just want to pull up generic images. I wanted to add my own special touch to each image. So I pulled out a tool that I haven't used in years: the Processing programming language.

Processing is great for simple algorithmic art. In this case I wanted to glitch some images interactively, but I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do.

So I just started experimenting. I played with colors and shapes and randomness. I like to derive randomess based on mouse movement. The more the mouse moves, the more randomness is imparted to whatever the user is doing.

I added image glitching based on mouse speed. The quicker the cursor moves, the more random are the generated shapes, and the more they are offset from their source position in the original image.

Here's the end result.

Fynix Fights Back

Here's the source code. Make it even better.

import java.awt.event.KeyEvent;

// relationship between image size and canvas size
float scalingFactor = 2.0;

// image from unsplash.com
String imageFilename = "YOUR_FILE_IN_DATA_FOLDER.jpg";

// image container
PImage img;
PImage scaledImage;

int minimumVelocity = 40;
int velocityFactorDivisor = 5; // the larger this is, the more vertices you will get
int velocityFactor = 1; // this will be overridden below

float minimumImageSize = 10.0f;

boolean firstDraw = true;

int currentImage = 1;

void settings() {
  // load the source image
  img = loadImage(imageFilename);
  // load the pixel colors into the pixels array
  // create a canvas that is proportional to the selected image
  size((int)(img.width / scalingFactor), (int)(img.height / scalingFactor));
  // scale the image for the window size
  scaledImage = loadImage(imageFilename);
  scaledImage.resize(width, height);
  // override velocityFactor
  velocityFactor = (int)(width / velocityFactorDivisor);

void setup() {
  // disable lines

void keyPressed() {
  if(keyCode == KeyEvent.VK_R) {
    firstDraw = true; // if the user presses ENTER, then reset

void draw() {
  if(firstDraw) {
    image(scaledImage, 0, 0);
    firstDraw = false;
  // right click to render to image file
  if(mousePressed && mouseButton == RIGHT) {
    save(imageFilename.replace(".jpg", "") + "_render_" + currentImage + ".tga");
  if(mousePressed && mouseButton == LEFT && mouseX >= 0 && mouseX < width && mouseY >= 0 && mouseY < height) {
    int velocityX = minimumVelocity + (3 * velocity(mouseX, pmouseX, width));
    int velocityY = minimumVelocity + (3 * velocity(mouseY, pmouseY, height));
    color c = img.pixels[mousePositionToPixelCoordinate(mouseX, mouseY)];

    int vertexCount = ((3 * velocityFactor) + velocityX + velocityY) / velocityFactor;
    int minimumX = mouseX - (velocityX / 2);
    int maximumX = mouseX + (velocityX / 2);
    int minimumY = mouseY - (velocityY / 2);
    int maximumY = mouseY + (velocityY / 2);
    PGraphics pg = createGraphics(maximumX - minimumX, maximumY - minimumY);

    // first draw a shape into the buffer
    for(int i = 0; i < vertexCount; i++) {
      pg.vertex(random(0, pg.width), random(0, pg.height));
    // then copy image pixels into the shape
    // get the upper left coordinate in the source image
    int startingCoordinateInSourceImage = mousePositionToPixelCoordinate(minimumX, minimumY);
    // get the width of the source image
    int sourceImageWidth = (int)(img.width);
    // set the offset from the source image
    int offsetX = velocity(mouseX, pmouseX, width);
    int offsetY = velocity(mouseY, pmouseY, height);
    // ensure that the offset doesn't go off the canvas
    if(mouseX > width / 2) offsetX *= -1;
    if(mouseY > height / 2) offsetY *= -1;
    for(int y = 0; y < pg.height; y++) {
      for(int x = 0; x < pg.width; x++) {
        // calculate the coordinate in the destination image
        int newImageY = y * pg.width;
        int newImageX = x;
        int newImageCoordinate = newImageX + newImageY;
        // calculate the location in the source image
        //int sourceImageCoordinate = (int)(startingCoordinateInSourceImage + (x * scalingFactor) + ((y * scalingFactor) * sourceImageWidth));
        //int sourceImageCoordinate = (int)(startingCoordinateInSourceImage + ((x + offsetX) * scalingFactor) + (((y + offsetY) * scalingFactor) * sourceImageWidth));

        int sourceImageX = (int)(((x + offsetX) * scalingFactor));
        int sourceImageY = (int)((((y + offsetY) * scalingFactor) * sourceImageWidth));
        int sourceImageCoordinate = (int)(startingCoordinateInSourceImage + sourceImageX + sourceImageY);
        // ensure the calculated coordinates are within bounds
        if(newImageCoordinate > 0 && newImageCoordinate < pg.pixels.length 
           && sourceImageCoordinate > 0 && sourceImageCoordinate < img.pixels.length
           && pg.pixels[newImageCoordinate] == c) {
          pg.pixels[newImageCoordinate] = img.pixels[sourceImageCoordinate];
    image(pg, minimumX, minimumY);

// convert the mouse position to a coordinate within the source image
int mousePositionToPixelCoordinate(int mouseX, int mouseY) {
  return (int)(mouseX * scalingFactor) + (int)((mouseY * scalingFactor) * img.width);

// This sort of calculates mouse velocity as relative to canvas size
int velocity(float x1, float x2, float size) {
  int val = (int)(Math.abs((x1 - x2) / size) * size);
  return val;

Discovering artist Viola M. Allen

I recently purchased Emerging from the Shadows, Vol. I: A Survey of Women Artists Working in California, 1860-1960 and while reading it I discovered one particularly interesting artist named Viola M. Allen. Her facility with a palette knife seems almost miraculous, so of course I started searching the web for more of her work. Other than a few items available at auction, I haven't been able to find much information. So I wanted to share a couple quotes from the fabulous book by Maurine St. Gaudens.

Viola M. Allen was born on March 14, 1906, in Queens, New York, the daughter of Safarine D. Allen and Minnie (Eschman) Allen. According to her biographical artist's promotional card, she attended, in New York, the Pratt Institute and the National Academy of Design, where she studied under Charles Curran. Her card also indicates that she studied portrait painting with Moskowitz and Borgdonav and sculpture with Haffner and Monahan. A resident of Manhattan, New York, through the 1930s, by the latter part of the decade she had moved to Los Angeles, California; she remained a California resident until her death.

A painting by Viola M. Allen

A study of Viola's paintings shows that she was a palette knife painter. Her ability to create realistic compositions by applying oil paint to a canvas, or board, by the use of a flexible painter's palette knife rather than a brush is found in most of her work; it is a difficult technique and one not widely practiced. Palette knives vary in length and width, and each one has a different tip, enabling the artist to achieve a different type of stroke, with the oil painting usually being applied very thickly on the canvas or board. During her career Viola had a commercial art studio in Malibu for many years where she did illustration and advertising art. In California, she exhibited with the California Art Club, 1955-1967.

This was all I could find out about her, and I'm happy to share it on the internet, and hopefully bring a little more attention to an artist who clearly had a control over the palette knife that few have ever achieved.

Of course I had to see if I could find one of her works at a reasonable price, and ebay came to my aid once again. I was able to find this beautiful small landscape listed for a song and now it hangs over my desk next to Sam Hyde Harris and Quincy Tahoma.

A small, untitled landscape by Viola M. Allen

I don't think I've ever seen another artist wield a palette knife as fluently as she did, so I'll be on the lookout for more of her work. I hope that the internet can help preserve the legacy of a great artist who clearly deserves a re-evaluation.

Sam Hyde Harris: Seeing the Unusual at Casa Romantica

I recently attended the exhibit Sam Hyde Harris: Seeing the Unusual at Casa Romantica in San Clemente, California. The exhibit was curated by Maurine St. Gaudens and Joseph Marsman and brought together around 60 pieces by Sam Hyde Harris in just two rooms on the lovely Casa Romantica estate.

Sam Hyde Harris is mostly remembered by collectors today as an active member of the California Art Club who produced hundreds of beautiful landscapes of California in the early 20th century and taught numerous students who went on to great careers. He was also a member of a group called the California Impressionists.

The focus of this exhibit was introducing a modern audience to the massive volume of commercial work he produced. This includes numerous posters for companies such as Union Pacific and the Santa Fe Railroad, as well as advertising pieces for local businesses and theater companies.

Union Pacific poster by Sam Hyde Harris

Here's the Curator's Statement from Maurine St. Gaudens.

Sam Hyde Harris, Seeing the Unusual explores the diverse oeuvre of this noted twentieth century California artist. Although widely known for the fine art compositions, few people realize the extent of Harris' commercial advertising work. Harris' designs shaped the consciousness of early to mid-twentieth century consumers and travelers. I really was quite surprised that so little attention had been paid to Harris the commercial artist. This exhibition explores this complex aspect of the artist's career.

My personal association with Sam Hyde Harris actually began more than thirty years ago when I was contacted by Harris' widow, Marion Dodge Harris, to catalogue the artist's estate. In the process I discovered examples of work the artist had created for a who's who of clients, not only in California, but across the western United States and nationally. It's the commercial work that today represents an historical record of product lines and services that were a part of everyday life from the 1920s - 1950s.

Art produced by Sam Hyde Harris for Gilmore Gasoline.

On a national level, Harris had a long and highly creative relationship with the railroad industry, specifically the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific, and Union Pacific rail lines. His iconic Art Deco themed Southern Pacific's New Daylight poster has become one of the most recognizable images of this art form and one that has become highly praised by railroad and design enthusiasts alike.

Unfortunately, over the years, as is common with many commercial artists, their work has gone unaccredited, and Harris is no exception. Although, with new research and recent descoveries, this oversight is now being corrected, and Harris' commercial designs are being recognized by a new generation of historians.

Harris' commercial work wasn't the only thing in the exhibition, though. There were plenty of paintings of the subjects for which he was most famous, including boats in harbor, and the Chavez Ravine before it was developed.

Paintings of boats by Sam Hyde Harris.

I spent an hour poring over every piece in the exhibit. Many of the pieces came from the collection of Charles N. Mauch, including several massive paintings that became his most famous posters. I particularly enjoyed seeing the different stages of the Taxco Mission poster produced for Southern Pacific. Through a sketch, a painting, and a print of the final poster, visitors could see the complete evolution of one of his commercial pieces.

I only recently became a fan and collector of work by Sam Hyde Harris, and I was glad to have the opportunity to see so much of his work in one place. I was also glad that this less well-known California artist was being brought to new audiences in the 21st century.

Sam Hyde Harris: Seeing the Unusual ran from November 19, 2021 through February 27, 2022.

Discovering Bay Area linocut artist Melissa West

Yesterday I went to the SF Bay Area Printers' Fair and Wayzgoose. It was a fabulous and interesting event. I was so glad to see prints by so many local artists and printers. I enjoyed talking to everyone I met there, but I spent the most time at the booth of artist Melissa .

Most booths at the fair had around a dozen different prints to peruse, but I was blown away by Melissa's prolific output. Melissa must have had close to 100 unique pieces there if you don't count the 50 she did as illustrations in a book she was selling. Every piece was a handmade linocut with no digital processes involved. I spent time leafing through every single piece there.

Another thing that impressed me in West's work was her textual fluency. Her work incorporates numerous references to other works of art and culture. She had many pieces that mimicked style elements in medieval art, including a series about saints that portrayed figures in a Byzantine style. I particularly liked St. Christina the Astonishing.

I was also impressed simply by the quality of her work. Despite her massive output, every piece reflects a fluency with linocut that I see in very few artists. She has clearly devoted a lot of her life to the craft, and the time has been well spent.

As usual, I picked up a couple pieces to add to my own collection. I think this surreal landscape will look great next to my pieces by Sam Hyde Harris.

El Viento, a surreal landscape by Melissa West

And this piece made me laugh. I think it will look good in my in-laws' house. Their house is adorned with artifacts relating to vehicles and travel.

The Rapture of the SUVs, by Melissa West

I encourage you to check out Melissa West's work and pick up a print. Put something beautiful on your walls.

Neglected by Sam Hyde Harris

A few months back I saw an absolutely gorgeous painting come up for auction. The listing said it was by one of my favorite artists, Sam Hyde Harris. Unfortunately, the painting was unsigned, and it was listed at a pretty low price. Both of these things gave me pause while considering bidding on it. We all know how common fraud is in the art world. How could I be sure that this piece was genuine?

Neglected by Sam Hyde Harris

You can never be 100% sure that a piece is genuine. This is doubly true in an online auction where you can only see a handful of pictures of a piece. There were several aspects of this piece that made me think twice.

  1. It was unsigned
  2. It was a slightly unusual composition for the artist
  3. It was listed at a lower starting price than most pieces by Sam Hyde Harris

I took a risk on the piece anyway, and I managed to pick it up for a very reasonable price.

But that was only the beginning of the journey. Once I got the piece in my hands, I tracked down the Sam Hyde Harris expert Maurine St. Gaudens. Maurine literally wrote the book on Sam Hyde Harris, and she had the documentation from his estate to be able to conclusively prove whether a piece was by him or not.

Harris was a member of a group called the California Impressionists, so I wasn't surprised to find that Maurine was located in California. After speaking with her, I agreed to bring the painting down to her studio in Los Angeles, where she could authenticate it.

Maurine is an exceptionally interesting person. She is a tiny woman around age 70 with long brown hair down her back. She is an art conservationist, so her studio is absolutely overflowing with art. Her own collection hangs in every available spot on her walls, and the standing room is filled with paintings that she is working on.

Her collection includes dozens of paintings by California artists of the 20th century, and especially female artists about whom she also wrote the book.

When I arrived at her studio there was a very tall man wandering around as well. He turned out to be the noted Sam Hyde Harris collector Charles N. Mauch. When I handed the painting over to Maurine for authentication, Charles took me back to a garage and started showing me more paintings by Sam Hyde Harris. It turned out that they still had some paintings left over from his estate, and I was welcome to look through them and maybe even purchase a few (more on that in a future post).

Here's one of the beautiful pieces that Charles showed me.

Pink Trees by Sam Hyde Harris

When Chuck and I were done browsing the wonderful paintings in Maurine's garage I finally made my way back to her studio to hear the verdict.

Maurine was happy to tell me that the painting was a genuine Sam Hyde Harris. She was able to verify this in two ways. First, she found the painting in the inventory made by the estate when Harris died. Second, she had actually seen other versions of this painting. It turns out that Harris made multiple sizes of most of his paintings. He first made a sketch, then a very small study, then a 12x16 version, and finally a larger version. She had seen the larger version of my painting in the past, so she knew that mine was indeed legitimate.

She was also able to tell me, based on the inventory number, that the painting was created some time in the 1930s. So it's a relatively early easel painting for Harris, because at that time he was more focused on his career as an illustrator.

She authenticated the work by painting her mark on the front and signing the back. I drove it back to San Jose, where it now sits above my desk. I think it's one of my favorite pieces in my collection right now, along with the big Quincy Tahoma painting that I had restored.

Buying a painting like this at auction is always a bit of a risk, but in this case the risk paid off in spades. Not only did I get to hang a beautiful piece of California history on my wall, but I also got to meet some amazing people. It goes to show how a great piece of art can inspire and unite people even many years after its inception.

Save the planet. Wear a hat

One of the odd sacrifices of our modern way of life is hats. Hats used to be everywhere. Everyone wore a hat every day. Just look at this 1940 painting by Jacob Lawrence. Do you see anyone not wearing a hat?

Painting of a busy railroad station where everyone is wearing a hat.

Why did everyone wear a hat? Because their hair was a greasy mess. Today we tend to shower more often than our ancestors, so we've dropped some of the layers of clothing that they preferred, including hats.

People still wear functional hats. Baseball players need to shade their eyes from the sun. Construction workers and football players need to protect their fragile skulls.

People also wear hats that form part of their uniform. The pope's hat is particularly famous, and the Queen's Guard wouldn't look right without their characteristic bear skin hats.

But outside of the occasional horse race, nobody wears big, fancy hats any longer. Like when was the last time you saw someone wearing hats like the ones worn by the Duke and Duchess of Urbino in this dual portrait by Piero della Francesca?

Painting of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino wearing fancy hats.

I think I'd look good in that giant red hat.

And anyway are we really better off showering every day? Between the dry skin and the lack of hats, I'm not entirely convinced.

Plus, showers are a massive waste of water and energy. I know I don't need to turn the hot knob all the way up, but I can't help myself. So the planet would be better off if we skipped a shower now and then.

And that would be much easier to do if I owned a few good hats. One artist who definitely liked a fancy hat was Rembrandt van Rijn. I had a hard time picking just the right self-portrait to feature in this post, but I think this hat with two feathers down the front would turn a few heads if someone was bold enough to bring it back.

Self portrait wearing a white feathered bonnet by Rembrandt.

So if you are a connoisseur of haberdashery, and you care about the planet, then do yourself a favor; buy a fancy hat and skip the shower.

A Sophisticated Provincial by Margo Alexander

There is very little information available online about the California artist Margo Alexander, and that is a shame. I was recently fortunate enough to pick up a small and interesting piece by her and I wanted to make sure to share what I knew about her online. I don't know the title of the piece, but it's one from a series she called Sophisticated Provincials, and they are still widely available at reasonable prices on ebay.

Margo Alexander was a muralist and printer who ran a large art studio in California in the first half of the 20th century. Here's what it says about her in Emerging from the Shadows.

In Los Angeles, she established her reputation as a muralist, creating custom murals for private homes and public buildings. As in her oil and watercolor paintings, her mural subjects included figurative, landscapes, still lifes, and genre scenes. She also designed fabric, china, and table linens. By the early 1940s, she employed six full-time artists at her Los Angeles studio to assist with mural commissions and with her more commercial production of serigraphs, which she called "Sophisticated Provincials," which were created using a hand reproduction technique she developed that attempts to retain the spontaneity of an original painting. These were simply signed "Margo."

What I think is interesting about Alexander is that she was commercializing screen prints in a way very similar to what Andy Warhol claimed credit for decades later. She was pumping out these small, semi-handcrafted works that were designed for the mass market. It's true that these small, quaint scenes haven't withstood the passage of time as well as Warhol's, but I still think she needs to be put in the same context as Warhol.

Here's the piece I picked up for $8 on ebay. It's only about three inches square.

A Sophisticated Provincial by Margo Alexander

A Sophisticated Provincial by Margo Alexander

Here's what it says on the back, if you're having a hard time reading the small print.

Widely recognized for the dash and color of her original paintings and murals, this popular western artist strove to develop a hand-reproduced technique retaining all the piquant spontaneity of her prized originals.

THIS, with the support of her associates, Ann Bode and a talented staff, in the seclusion of her tree-covered old-world studio, she has achieved and proudly presents herewith her original hand-replica of...

I can't read what was originally in the box at the bottom, so I can only speculate at the title.

I hope that by putting this online I can preserve some memory of an artist who was successful enough to run her own store in Los Angeles for decades.

Initial Experiments with Make-a-Scene by Meta

Last week Meta announced their entry into the field of artifical intelligence image generation. Their new tool is called Make-a-Scene and it takes both an image and a line of text as prompts. It's a more collaborative tool than some of the other image generators made by other companies. A person can sketch out a rough scene as input, then use text to tell Make-a-Scene how to fill it in.

Make-a-Scene isn't yet open to the public, but as a Meta employee, I was able to get my hands on it early. In this post, I'm going to show you my first experiments with Make-a-Scene, and you can see how it compares to the other image generation tools.

As a lover of California landscapes, and a collector of the painters known as the California Impressionists, I had to start by trying to generate some California landscapes. I drew an image with a sky, a mountain, a river, and a fence. Then I gave it the prompt "an impressionist painting of california". This image shows the input along with four generated images.

Input into Make-a-Scene for an impressionist painting of California

I particularly liked the first two images.

an impressionist painting of california made by Evan Merz and Make-a-Scene

an impressionist painting of california made by Evan Merz and Make-a-Scene

As you can see, Make-a-Scene tries to follow the image input as closely as possible, and it's able to interpret the phrase "impressionist painting" in many different ways.

Next, I fed it the much more specific prompt of "Emperor Palpatine training Anakin Skywalker". As you can see from the generated images, it struggled much more to understand both my poor drawing, and the very specific text prompt.

Input into Make-a-Scene for Emperor Palpatine training Anakin Skywalker

You can see how my drawing led the AI astray in the generated images. I included lightsabers in sections of the image labeled as "person" so Make-a-Scene added some funky looking arms onto the people. Interestingly, it didn't necessarily understand who the fictional characters were, but it knew that they were soldiers.

Emperor Palpatine training Anakin Skywalker made by Evan Merz and Make-a-Scene

For my last experiment, I went back to something more generic. I though about the type of images that marketers might need. I drew a picture of a person-shaped blob holding a spoon-shaped blob, and gave it the prompt "a woman eating breakfast". The results are trippy, but interesting.

Input into Make-a-Scene for a woman eating breakfast

The first image it generated looks almost like usable clip art.

A woman eating breakfast made by Evan Merz and Make-a-Scene

Overall, I think Make-a-Scene is interesting and fun. I think, even in this early state, it has some real possibility for generating art in some situations. I think it would be particularly good at creating trippy art for album covers or single artwork on music streaming sites. I also think it could be useful for brainstorming visual ideas about characters, concepts, and even fiction. I hope that Meta opens it up to the public soon.