Sunday, December 29, 2013


©Will Nelson

I learned to paint in watercolor as if it were the family business. My grandfather, Will Nelson, is a painter, illustrator, and teacher. My uncle Roland Giampaoli, has had a similar career. I have very fond memories of my grandfather's art studio. I recall thumbing through books of paintings and drawings, the smell of linseed oil and turpentine, and the piles of sketches, books, and art supplies that made it seem such a chaotically creative place. When I was in middle school I started taking watercolor classes from at my uncle Roland's Paint and Draw Art School. I would draw and copy watercolors painted by my uncle or by Gaye Hoopes. This is a way of learning art that isn't practiced much anymore, accept at a few Atelier schools around the country. It was a tradition practiced in the early academies in Paris, Rome, and London. The idea was that a student would absorb compositional, technical, and narrative techniques from exposure to the best work. At its best, the academic tradition produced some great painters such as GericaultCouture, and Picasso. At its worst, the work was derivative and forgettable. Browse the list of the winner of the Prix de Rome (the top academic accolade from the premier academy) from 1860 to 1890 and you'll encounter nothing remarkable--at a time when art was changing in leaps and bounds. Truly innovative painters, such as Manet or Degas, never achieved the Rome Prize. Goya (although he later became the academy's director) was initially refused admittance into the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.

But that's not to say there isn't a lot to be learned from studying the past. The serious student, I think, can learn a lot from copying. I'm not sure if I was quite there at the age of 13, but I still remember laying in those washes and trying to get my head around painting a tree is 3-4 brush strokes. My arm and hand still remember the movements and feel of the brush, so I must have picked up something. These experiences are most telling in the way I paint. Others besides myself have noticed that my painting process is more like my uncle Roland's, in that it's pretty loose and energetic. The end result however, is more like my grandfather's.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas at Kahnawake

With Christmas just around the corner, Katria challenged me to write about the holiday as St. Kateri would have know it.

Christmas in the 17th century was a controversial subject. To British and American protestants, the holiday was seen as mildly "papish" or at worst, a pagan holdover with echos of solstice bonfires and Asiatic tree worship. It wasn't really until Dickens popularized the holiday in A Christmas Carol and the Germanic Queen of the United Kingdom, Alexandrina Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and her consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-und-Gotha, erected their own Christmas tree, that the Protestants warmed to the practice.

The Dutch, being accustomed to a multicultural (that is, composed of catholic and protestant elements) society, were known to celebrate the holiday in their colonies in the Americas. Although, for them, the festivities usually occurred around the feast of St. Nicholas--or Sinterklaus--in early December. Anyone who is familiar with the writings of David Sedaris will know that this is still the Dutch custom. Some aspects of their December festivities are generating controversy today.

Catholicism has a rich history in Canada and the French Catholics in Quebec were more inclined to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord on December 25th in greater splendor than the adjacent feast days. "Christmas" is a contraction of Christ's Mass in old and middle english. The OED first records it in 1038 as Crīstesmæsse. So you won't find that word in any of the non-english primary sources. In Quebec the holiday was referred to as Noël. While I don't have specific details about any Noël celebrations during the time St. Kateri was at Kahnawake, I have been able to dig up a record of Christmas celebrations involving Jesuit missionaries, French settlers, and the Plains tribes of present day Michigan.

Histoire des Canadiens du Michigan et du comté d'Essex, Ontario
For those of you who don't parler français, here is a paraphrase of the relevant passages:

In 1675 Father Pierre Bailloquet came to the mouth of the Saginaw River, where he built a chapel--the first built by Christians in lower Michigan--where he celebrated the feast of Noël in splendor. "Having a small crib next to our altar," he said, "our christians came at midnight and during the day. They caused these forests to resound with their hymns in honor of the newborn Jesus . What a joy for us, at the midnight mass and during the day, to see the child Jesus recognized by the Indians in this country" 

Being a dutch and german invention, Santa Claus was absent, as was the exchange of gifts. While their celebration was much simpler than what we know today, there are many similarities. We know that they celebrated with hymns and songs, and decorated the chapel with a rudimentary nativity scene. They even held a midnight vigil mass, although the lack of reliable clocks may have made timing less than exact.

Regarding the hymns they sang, I haven't had much luck in locating a Jesuit missionary hymnal from North America. They must exist, since the jesuits travelled with books of homilies and prayers in phonetic transcriptions of the languages of the Native Americans. Since I don't speak french, research is cumbersome as I translate terms back and form. I do have a one hymn to share with you, written circa 1641 by the missionary Jaques Brebeuf at Sainte-Marie-au-Pays-des-Hurons in Ontario. It is now known as 'Twas the Moon of Wintertime, but in the original Huron it was known as Jesous Ahatonhia (Jesus he is Risen). The song has the distinction of being the first North American Carol. Bruce Cockburn recorded a version of the song in Huron. List to it here

It is difficult to know what hymns they would have sang at Kahnawake, but since the community included Mohawk and Huron, this song will at least convey the sound of the language that may have been heard at their celebrations. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Head Study no. 7 and 9

Since we took so many shots at the photoshoot, I've had a lot of work to do in sorting through them all. So far I've gathered about a dozen that contain information useful to making the painting. Even still, there are a number of issues that are better worked out in paint. Questions like "How am I going to simplify the hair?" or, "What if I adjust her gaze downward?" are easier to resolve by taking a day to make a small painting. This way I have some idea of what I'm getting into when I begin the large canvas. Last week I painted a few studies of Lauren, Jadalyn, Tyler, and the longhouse interior. Below you can see some photographs of the progress on the 7th study I've painted of Lauren so far.

An article about me appeared in the Evangelist journal of the Diocese of Albany. Check it out here:
Siena Artist Paints St. Kateri Tekakwitha

Friday, December 13, 2013

Figure Study

I began a scaled study of the entire painting on Tuesday. The anticipated complexity of orchestrating a multi-figure composition has made me anxious to get some visual confirmation that I'm on the right track. It's been pretty successful. Only some small changes are needed in the beams of the building to better reflect the scale of the space. The image above was taken from a small study of Tyler that I've also been busy painting.

Monday, December 9, 2013


© Katria Foster Photography

The other day I gathered everyone together on the Siena college campus for a group photoshoot for the second painting. The goal was to get enough visual information for me to get started. Since two of my models were traveling from the other side of the state I wanted to make it count. We all worked hard and Katria took some great shots that I'll rely on the make the second painting. I'm excited to soon begin painting Jadalyn and Tyler.

© Katria Foster Photography

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

French Fashion Part II

Male Iroquois dress traditionally consisted of pieces similar to female clothing, but in a much more minimal fashion. The drawing above, made in the late 17th- or early 18th-century depicts two men in the lower left corner.  Leggings, Moccasins, and a Skirt or Loin Cloth covered the lower limbs. The torso was most often bare. When an upper garment was worn, it took the form of sashes, blankets, or other loose drapery. Despite the matriarchal nature of Iroquois society, the patriarchal conventions of European business and diplomacy meant that male members of the tribes and clans would deal with the English, French, and Dutch. Rather than dress in an entirely European manner, they would adopt garments that could be altered to suit their own uses and aesthetics. In Verelst's early 18th-century painting of a dignitary from the Turtle Clan, the gentleman wears European garments that have been refashioned to reflect Iroquois convention.

In Kahnawake the Mohawk and the Huron lived with greater exposure to European culture. They were able to trade for a greater variety of material. Since the Iroquois in Chauchetiere's drawings are depicted in European garments, that has been my strategy with the second painting. St. Kateri Tekakwitha and a young girl will be clothed in material similar to what is worn by St. Kateri in Chauchetiere's portrait. The young boy will wear a loose, belted shirt and leggings.