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It’s early summer. Flowers are in bloom. It’s peaceful. It’s beautiful. My drive from Rochester to Penn Yan passes through pastoral landscapes of scripted fields burgeoning with crops, fenced pastures wafting with rural scents, and tree-lined hamlets announcing church dinners and lemonade stands. My destination is Hawk Ridge, Sheldon Berlyn’s home and art studio. I have a lunch date with him and his wife Diane.

As I’m driving east on Rt. 5, I think about an article I read in which the author heralds Berlyn as “an archetype of contemporary art culture.” A coveted title to be sure and duly appropriated. His credentials are imposing: a career spanning five decades; fellowships, awards, and exhibitions far too numerous to list in this short space; a forty-year member of “Who’s Who in American Art”; and most impressive, a mainstay in nearly fifty private, public, and corporate collections.

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon – Artist Sheldon Berlyn

Sheldon Berlyn is an abstract expressionist. In other words, he creates nonrepresentational art; his art is not mimetic of nature: you can’t see figures; you can’t see landscapes, albeit their influence is ultimately presented in some form. Berlin’s interest is to create form and shape and not least to extrapolate an aesthetic response from his beholder. His work is characterized by the interplay of sweeping graceful arcs and semi-transparent layers of color that travel in horizontal and vertical motion. He accomplishes this by what is referred to as gestural painting, that is to say, expressive paint strokes that deliberately emphasize the movement of his hand or the sweep of his arm. The aim is to reflect personality and mood much like my or your gestures reflect our personality and mood. But here’s the thing that trips me up: Berlyn cues from the great masters—Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Pontormo, and the later works of Cezanne, Manet, and Monet, among others—as models for his abstractions. I’m admittedly confounded. The contrast between the nondescript elements of Berlyn’s abstract art and the realistic representations of Baroque and Impressionist art is striking. Where does he see the connection?

“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful – as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth harmony.”
– James McNeill Whistler

I’m beginning to think I’m in over my head. In an effort to push down my angst, I let my mind finger through the Rolodex of literary movements and theories I studied as a graduate student, trying to determine which label would best identify what I know so far of Berlyn’s work. Literary theory is born from many of the same cultural fluctuations that informed the tenets of the shifting art movements, so there’s not much stretch between the two. And in this case the mental exercise is helpful before meeting with an “archetype of contemporary art” who self-reportedly “intellectualizes his work.” I’m hoping the afternoon with Berlyn will give me a perspective broader than, or at least different from, the delineated genres in which I’ve been taught to identify art, and my hope is fulfilled.

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon - Artist Sheldon Berlyn

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon – Artist Sheldon Berlyn

He greets me from an outdoor balcony and directs me to the stairway leading to where he and his aging Labrador wait. Berlyn lives in a post-and-beam home of his own design that recalls Buddhist minimalism and Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. Whatever angst I had is immediately disarmed by his congeniality. After a hearty handshake, he escorts me into his cool, naturally-lit house, which sits on a densely treed hillside flanking Keuka Lake. I am introduced to his wife Diane who is an established artist in her own right, and the three of us gather at the dining table for lunch and conversation, which eventually leads to a discussion of a large painting situated above the Kawai grand piano in the adjoining living space.

I study the painting for some time while Berlyn patiently waits. The very act of searching for an interpretation in Berlyn’s work is pleasurable and I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde’s observation that “there are works which wait, and which one does not understand for a long time; the reason is that they bring answers to questions which have not yet been raised.”

Finally, I tell him I see dancers, elegant and sure—perhaps a waltz, a sweeping ballet—and indeed, he tells me this was his intention when he created the painting. He is pleased at my recognition—an affirmation of a master’s work. “Human kinetic movement is what I’m after,” he explains. I tell him that the iridescent delicacy of the white paint pulled by his homemade squeegee adds a lyrical, linear direction suggestive of a musical score. “That was not intended,” he says, “I remember doing this painting and I remember how excited I was that I could control it all the way through to its end while maintaining a certain tension and that the whole thing came together as a unified structure.” Berlyn is acutely conscious of his placement of form and of visual balance. He aptly controls the beholder’s eye so that it never goes totally off the page. Calm. Grace. Beauty.

He then shows me to his studio on the lower-level, also paneled with floor-to-ceiling windows. He pulls a large canvas from an upright bin. “I reference Caravaggio in this painting,” he says as he places it on the tabletop, “This is the ‘Martyrdom of St. Matthew.’” I don’t get it and I tell him so. He explains:

“What I did was draw a grid over [Caravaggio’s] work and also a series of concentric circles and diagonals to show what his compositional reference is. Diagonals and horizontals determine where the figures line up and the concentric circles have to do with the receding and advancing quality of the imagery,” he says. “You see, I’m not trying to be totally literal, but I am using the dramatic characteristics of Baroque painting, and I’m using the placement and directional flow of the figures, but I’m totally abstracting it. I’m not trying to reproduce or imitate Caravaggio as such.” Berlyn’s ultimate goal is to create a good painting, an interesting painting, one with variation, one that you can look at once and come back to time and again and see it for the first time. “That is the mission of true art—to make us pause and look at a thing a second time,” posits Oscar Wilde.

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon

After talking over several more paintings, uses of color, which Berlyn takes particular pride in (a nod to Josef Albers et. al), and interpretations, we come to the end of the afternoon. I’m compelled to ask to see the ink drawings he sketched while in the Korean War. He is most happy to oblige me. He goes to a back room and returns a moment later with a box he made to house this collection of some of his earliest work. He uncoils the string that wraps it with the lightest of hand, approaches the edge of the paper as if it were a tiny bird, and turns the first drawing over for us to view. I am again struck by the delicacy of his artistic hand, but even more so by the humanness with which he depicted his subjects: Korean prisoners in his charge. Men and women, some robed in linen garb, some busying themselves with banal tasks, all depicted as gentle, kind, human, and lonely. War.

Where does Berlyn see the connection? I get it now. What I had come to understand is that by distilling human emotion from the objects of nature, by eliminating the embellishments of gender, class, status, particularities of environment, boundaries, Berlyn disabuses any misperception about what it is to be human. He rises to a symbolic expression that reaches across time, culture, and borders to convey the essential, even spiritual, ideas of experience and of art.

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon - Artist Sheldon Berlyn

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon – Artist Sheldon Berlyn

My mood is elevated and light; my intellect crisp and heady. I am somehow aware of the weight of the hours I spent with Sheldon Berlyn and that I am somehow changed. A chord has been struck. In my literary world, it would be the equivalent of studying, if only for a trollop of time, with a Pulitzer Prize author, and I wonder if years from now university students will be highlighting Berlyn’s biography with yellow marker, cramming his philosophies about art, about beauty, about minimalism and essence into their heads in the wee hours of the night, readying themselves for a mid-term exam. Berlyn is a master of his art, a man of excellence, a man of measure who creates because he must create, an artist for art’s sake.

When I stop at the bottom of the winding drive, I look into my rearview mirror. Hawk Ridge is out of my field of vision—a respite tucked in a lakeside wood, hidden, as it should be, from the masses—and I am aware that my perspective of art in the old sense has faded.


127 Pages, 30 Artist Articles, 6 Writers, 3 Photographers… ALL ROCHESTER!

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The obsession to stay current is exhausting. Nearly everything these days is disposable and the expected lifespan of any tech device is at an all-time low. Upgrade used to mean “enhance” – existing hardware could be fit with newer software to more closely compete with the new model. “Replace” is a more accurate meaning for upgrade today. In most cases it is simply more cost effective to toss the old and buy the new than it is to monkey around trying to massage more flexibility into last year’s model. Information is everywhere and we obviously need it all. We’re incessantly pummeled by untruths, half-truths, and ugly truths on TVs, phones, watches, and even eyewear… and it’s still not enough. We need more. More. Faster. More. Brighter. More. Smaller. No wait…Bigger. Yes. Bigger. More. More. More! Whew! I may need a smoke after getting carried away a bit. But seriously, life is hectic. It’s noisy. Even all of those wonderful tech gadgets need to recharge. As do we. We need quiet; we need art to take us out of the fast lane.

Art is the portal to the forgotten dimension of stillness. Whether your pleasure is creating art or appreciating art, it really does not matter. Art allows us to bathe in the moment and let time pass unnoticed. I don’t really care if you choose to stare at paintings in a gallery or museum, watch movies, listen to music, read books, dance, cook, or even garden. All of these activities allow quiet to resonate as our batteries recharge. We are allowed to visit new whens, wheres, and whys through art, as we lose ourselves in another world. Imagination and focus are the keys to everything. Focus on the words on the page and voila! you find yourself inhabiting the same world you’re reading about. It’s rather like magic. The world can continue to race by at its blistering pace, but it can’t hurt you in your bubble of peace and quiet.

Even non-traditional activities can possess artistic qualities based on the idea that sharp focus on the detail erases the ticking clock. There is beauty in refining a technique to create rhythm, losing sight of the large task at hand and breaking it down into smaller, less daunting pieces. That is how art is made: the process. Heard that before?

Think about it in a different way and apply it to your everyday life. If you file papers in an office, or twist caps on detergent bottles, the idea is the same. Focus on the series of movements required to complete the job and do each as well as possible, blocking out the scope of the quantity and concentrating on the quality. The monotony fades away and your body moves more efficiently without the mind cluttering the processWhen the body finds that rhythm the mind is free to roam, to daydream, to be somewhere else. I know from experience. I have shoveled, wheeled, and raked countless yards of dirt, stone, and mulch. I have mowed seemingly infinite stripes in grass. I have put paper and wire on thousands of picture frames. And, yes, I have worked in a liquid soap factory twisting bottle caps and stacking pallets. In each and every chore there are small steps that are taken to achieve a greater end, and my mind was free to go anywhere as my body did the work. That may sound as if I didn’t care how well the task was performed and just let my mind wander and dream as I carelessly tossed dirt here and there. I assure you that is the exact opposite from the truth. Focus on the movement and on the process needs to be present to allow the mind and body to work independently from each other. I cut each and every stripe of grass focusing solely on getting that line as straight as humanly possible. After a few passes it becomes an innate sense and I achieve inner quiet despite the roar of the mower engine. As crazy as it sounds, finding that zen within something as menial as cutting grass is an art. It is a portal into another world, any world you choose to visit.

You know what I love about art? It’s always there when I need an escape. I can get lost in the heavy brush strokes of Mr. Van Gogh or the absurdly brilliant abstraction of Mr. Picasso. I can open a novel and let the author lead me wherever she wants. I can pick up a pencil or a brush and explore color, texture, shape, and movement in any way I choose. Art doesn’t stop the passage of time; the clock keeps ticking and the earth continues its steady rotation around the sun. Not that you’ll notice though.

Life isn’t even possible without art, more so, when the definition of art is expanded to include everyday tasks. It is stillness that produces the motion and the silence that amplifies the sound. It is the same idea as not knowing love or pain without the other. Art allows us the opportunity to recognize how frenzied our lives have become by offering us the sanctuary of quiet. The imagination to create comes from allowing stillness to permeate our beings. I believe that without art we would easily fall prey to the flood of technology. The flow of information grows stronger by the day and our connections to other beings simultaneously erodes. Ignore the blinking message alert that resembles a lighthouse beacon. Its promise of safe harbour is quickly revealed as a ruse, as a siren’s hauntingly sweet song enticing us to succumb to the sea.

Art enriches everything and everyone that takes the time to be still for one second. With almost no effort whatsoever we can let life rush on by as we take the time to savor the little moments of peace.