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The Haiku Paintings: Abstract Surrealism, Calligraphy, Freud, Basho, and the Modernists


Today I thought I would talk about my “Haiku Series” paintings.

Painters in the past had to paint realistic subjects in beautiful detail. With the advent of the camera, painters needed to differentiate themselves from this new technology, so they began to split off into many different, less realistic ways of presenting their “art.” Now there are so many different schools of painting you need to take courses to understand them all -- I know, I teach them. Plus, viewers of art may feel confused as to what any given piece of art is supposed to be about. When you view the art on my website today, before you read anything about it, I want you to stop to see what you think of it, what it makes you feel. Then, after you've allowed your mind to interpret it, you can read on to learn more about the piece.

This is particularly true of what I call my “haiku paintings.” In 2007 I went to the Vermont Studio Center, which is where I learned how to do these paintings. This method was suggested to me by the painter Bill Jenson. The Haiku paintings and drawings are abstractions using a method that is similar to a technique reportedly used by the seventeenth century Japanese haiku poet, Basho. As the method was told to me, one of Basho’s disciples recorded that Basho would seat himself before his paper and wait for the “space” between himself and the paper to “disappear.” Then he would begin writing. When it seemed that the poem had begun to occupy its own “space,” he would quit writing. The poem was finished. As applied to my painting, I would sit in front of a canvas and wait until I felt the brush had to touch the canvas. At that point I would let my hand take me wherever it wanted to go. The strokes just happened. Since the haiku paintings were done quickly and in the moment, it is hard for me to pinpoint and remember exactly what feelings or thoughts motivated me to produce any particular one. By the way, my wife is a writer and poet, and she selected the titles for many of the haiku paintings. I let her look at the paintings, and she picked lines and phrases from poems that “fit” the painting for her.

Some paintings just have a different feel l than other paintings, whether they are abstract or representational. For example, “Soda Shoppe” (shown above) has a very light-hearted feel, which implied the title.

In contrast, the painting, “The fish glitters in me, we are risen tangled together, certain to fall back to the sea” (above) has a more serious feel, even having somewhat of a downward pull to it. The haiku paintings express certain feelings or movements and are very similar to calligraphy in this respect. Calligraphers in all cultures and all languages have exploited this propensity for the stroke of a pen or a brush to feel light-hearted, fanciful, playful or more solemn, depending upon their intent. However, one of the ways in which the haiku paintings differ from the work of calligraphers is that with the haiku paintings I never know what I am going to get ahead of time. This is related to the process of making the haiku paintings, which is very spontaneous, and seems to allow for expressions to come about of which I am unconscious.

Since I’m an art professor I also wanted you to know about how my haiku work fits into the scheme of art history. The closest parallel to this work in art history of which I am aware is the automatic writing done by the abstract surrealists of the 1920s and the 1930s. Their work was heavily influenced by the writings of Sigmund Freud, and in particular, his book The Interpretation of Dreams. In this book, Freud talked about the unconscious or subconscious mind, a part of the mind which we cannot access consciously but which nonetheless communicates tremendous amounts of information via symbols in dreams. Through automatic writing the abstract surrealists hoped to access the unconscious. The abstract surrealists were part of a larger movement known as modernism. The modernists reduced their subjects (such as landscapes) to basic colors and shapes.

Please feel free to comment below or to email me with any thoughts on this article or on any of my paintings. You can email me from my website or at


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