Bruce Katlin Creates And The Running Artist

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Dead 2 Years and Lessons Learned.

Her death was pronounced at 20:46 two years ago today. It wasn't an easy death. She didn't go out in storybook fashion like someone who dies in their sleep or while doing something they love like running or parachuting or gardening or making love. My mother, who struggled all her life with mental illness along with a myriad of other physical conditions, spent the last twenty four hours of her life in pain in a shitty hospital where her Ischemic Colitis was misdiagnosed which then led to sepsis that ultimately would have caused her death.

The doctors told us that if she were younger and healthier they would have recommend surgery. We faced a decision that thousands of families are presented with each year. It's a terrible precipice to be standing on knowing that with three words or less a person's complete life; the entire road they travelled on to this point is now in your hands. 

We consulted family members who were physicians who intimately knew my mother's history and had treated her numerous times over the years. They assured us that due to her age, medical history and current condition she would not survive surgery. We trusted them if not the hospital's doctors and told the one caring nurse to, "Let her go." My brother, sister and I along with their kids said our goodbyes and the life support machines were turned off. I looked for signs of my mother's spirit leaving her body, ascending towards the ceiling but there was nothing. She didn't even look dead, just very quiet and still. 

My mother's mental illness caused her and her family a lot of pain - it's not just the patient that suffers. But if you were to strip away the mental illness you would see a generous, loving, woman who loved her friends and family dearly and was as tough and courageous as the eastern European landscape that her father escaped during the Pogroms. 
White Water Rafting on The Colorado River, 1982
I was prepared for my mother's death. She surprised me by living as long as she did with as sick as she was. She never thought of herself as brave or courageous but anyone who survived thirty sessions of shock treatment, endless courses of drug therapies, the loss of her husband at an early age while consistently battling depression has got to be a little tough if not resilient. I like to think that she passed on some of her resiliency along with a dash of tenacity. 

The greatest unspoken fear we human-beings have is the fear of death. I know that one day I too will die. I've always known this but not until both parents passed did I realize it to be true. I wasn't yet an adult when my father died. I was a very young twenty-four years old living a ski bums life in Colorado. Due to the sixteen hundred miles that separated us I hadn't seen him for close to a year. During what would turn out to be our last telephone conversation I was curt and probably rude. I just had a fight with my then girlfriend and I abruptly hung up the phone.

During one of my mother's many hospital stays she said to me, "Bruce, getting old really sucks." When she made that comment she had already mourned the loss of many good friends and relatives. Like most seniors, she hated the fact that her body and mind had slowed and that she wouldn't accomplish all the things she wanted to do. I empathized with her and told her that I can't imagine how frustrating it must feel. She paused before saying, "There were so many things that I wish I did differently. I'm sorry if I wasn't the mother you needed me to be." 

Years before she died I told my mother that my deceased father had appeared one day at our NYC apartment. Both my wife and I saw him sitting on the sofa. I thought that this bit of news would make her happy but it only scared her and left her anxious and in tears. "But you'll see him again," I promised. She responded, "Maybe but I'm not ready right now."

Newlyweds Leaving For Their Honeymoon - 1956
With all the hospitalizations, her alarms of suicide, and family arguments, she managed to travel, go to the theatre, laugh, play cards with friends and work until she was eighty. I do mourn her. It hurts. All of it. But it's all part of "it" and in some way my mother's life was a lesson in love, determination and understanding.

We were lucky in a way in that a month before she died my mother came to visit my wife and I in Chicago. It was a cold and moist weekend and she had a lot of trouble walking and breathing but she insisted that we go and see the city. It took us what seemed an eternity to walk one block and my wife and I tried to hide our impatience. Her frailty focused us once again on our own short fading lives and how we wanted to live it.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Full-Circle Stories

At Author Frank Waters' Home in New Mexico

It's quite amazing don't you think, when you read a book or see a painting that influences you so much that for some strange reason you find yourself sitting in the living room of the author or painter? Irregular yes, but that's what happened to me after I was aquatinted with the words of the prolific writer, Frank Waters

I was introduced to Mr. Waters' work by a woman waiting to board a plane to Chicago at Albuquerque Airport. She was moving from Chicago, where I currently reside to Taos, New Mexico where I dream of residing. (Coincidence?)  "If you want to learn about Taos and the people of the Valley," she said, "Then you need to read Frank Waters." 

Mr. Waters was a writer who penned numerous books about life in and around Taos. He carved staggering, fluid and articulate stories out of the beautiful and expansive landscapes; the community triad of Native Americans, Latinos and Anglos; rapid racism, corruption and the slow and sometimes silent culture. 

I started off reading The Man Who Killed The Deer and instantaneously became a Waters' fan. Hungry to learn about the man between the book covers, I then dove into, Of Time and Change, Waters' autobiography that includes his friendships with the painters who founded the Taos Society of Artists  along with Mabel Dodge Luhan and Georgia O'Keeffe who fell hard for the blue colored mountains, flowing river gorges and endless sun-filled vistas.  

Excited to visit Taos on our vacation last September, my wife and I ended up staying in El Prado on the north side of town. On our second day we made a visit to the arts village of Arroyo Secco where we met talented potters, painters and printers. Out of curiosity I asked one of the shop owners if Mr. Waters' widow, Barbara was still alive. She said that she was elderly but still alive, accepting visitors and that I should go and giver her door a knock. When I hesitated she ensured me that it would be okay, "She has a caretaker and she loves to talk about Frank." 

"What's the address?" I asked. 
"Oh, we don't go by addresses round here. It's up the road a bit, you'll know it when you see it." 

We found the Waters' homestead only after driving around in circles for thirty minutes and came upon a postal carrier. I sheepishly walked to the front door with a copy of Of Time and Change in hand and knocked. A small screened window opened and the top of woman's head appeared, her small, thin voice accented with Spanish said, "Yes? Can I help you?" 

"I was wondering if Barbara is available? I'm a big fan of her husband's work." The tiny head turned and called out into the darkness of the adobe style home, "Barbara. Someone here to see you." There was a pause and a weak and creaky voice asked, "Who is it?" The tiny head turned back to me and asked, "She wants to know is it?" 

"Tell her I'm Bruce from Chicago and that I was wondering if I could meet with her and ask her some questions about herself and Mr. Waters, but if now's not a good time I can come back another day."

The tiny head repeated my words verbatim and Barbara's frail voice relayed that she wasn't feeling well and asked if could I come back tomorrow at 2PM. "Yes. Tell her yes. I will come back tomorrow with cookies." The tiny head confirmed the next day's appointment and that Barbara prefers chocolate chip cookies. "Bring a lot. I like chocolate chip cookies too," she said.

At the appointed time the following day I showed up with two bags of cookies and my wife at my side. We gave the door a gentle knock and a beautiful puckish woman with a waterfall of white hair greeted us at the door with a warm and friendly smile. Surely this couldn't be Mrs. Waters. She was way to young and spry. And she was not the tiny head from the day before who spoke to me through the screened window. "Come this way, Barbara is almost ready to see you." 

She let us explore the modest house complete with generations of collected paintings, letters, photographs and sculptures from what I guessed were given to the Waters over the years from friends and artists like Blueminschien, Couse, Sharp, Phillips and one of my favorite painters, Nicolai Fechin. Here we were standing in the living room of Frank Waters! I was gobsmacked by the fortuitousness of the situation and the generosity of our host. When I turned to my left there on a far wall was a graphite portrait of Frank Waters which, Waters writes about and includes a copy of in his book Of Time and Change. According to Waters accounts in is autobiography, it was the only portrait that Nicolai Fechin ever did of him. They were good friends and took many high mountain walks together but only one portrait came out of all their time together. 

"Wow!" I exclaimed. "Is that the original drawing?" When assured that it was I felt like I was in a dream. I just read the book, saw the copy of the portrait, came to know of the two men's friendship and here I was face to face with the artist's work in the sitter's home! I felt like a ghost in a house of the living. All the energy that was created in this little, warm and comfortable home over many years had never left; only touching and growing those that came and went. You could see it in the slanted rays of sun that poured through a southern facing window; feel and smell it in the crisp pinion scented air. 

"Would you like to meet Barbara now?" Our 'guide' Jackie asked.

"Yes, very much."

We walked through a small door way to a makeshift living-bedroom where we were greeted with by Mrs. Barbara Waters who was laying on her bed with her felt elevated, her blonde hair brushed neatly, a small wave of bangs flowed over her forehead. 

"Well hello. Welcome. Please, take a seat." She was adorable and sweet and kind. 

I was smitten. "It is so nice to meet you Mrs. Waters. Thank you so much for inviting us into your home." 

"I'm sorry that I couldn't see you yesterday. My foot was giving me so much trouble but it feels better today." 

I did a little math and figured that she was probably in her mid to late eighties and if her foot was the only thing troubling her she was doing pretty well for her age. 

"We're so sorry that you're not feeling well. Are you sure you're up for visitors?" 

She assured us that she was and asked, "Now, what would you like to ask about Frank?"

I had so many questions and had know idea where to start. I had been in this situation before. The first time I met Dame Judi Dench outside the Royal Court Theatre I was so woozy with happiness that I practiced saying her name over and over again in my head before I blurted out, "Judi Dame, it's such a pleasure." 

I started off asking Barbara questions about writing, hers and Frank's: where and when they liked to write, the duration of their writing sessions, etc. Then I moved onto personal topics of where and when she and Frank met, their first date and other areas of interests that may have appeared mundane to Barbara and her ever peaceful and watchful friend and caregiver, Jackie. Barbara told us that she is from Illinois and that Frank believed that there's a direct line leading many people to Taos from Chicago and that it was no coincidence that we were lead to her husband's work and the beautiful mountains of Taos.  

We could have stayed in that warm little room all afternoon but wanted to be respectful of the time. Our two hours chat was equal give and take with Barbara and Jackie asking about my writing and my wife's hat designs. I learned a lot about the story behind The Man Who Killed The Deer, the writing cabin behind the main house and the lyrical Kiami Gypsy Wagon parked nearby where I imagined many yarns where told over the miles it travelled.

Barbara thanked us for the cookies and company and invited us to come visit again. I promised that we would and that I would call her from time to time. I get a tickle each time I do. The connection from the printed page to the author's home is truly full-circle. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Mother Nature As Art Instructor

Lake Michigan, Somewhere Near 31st Beach, Chicago (Clickable Image)

Mother Nature As Ultimate Art Instructor shares Her lessons for anyone interested enough to stand along Her shores of Lake Michigan this winter. Click on the above image and watch and listen to Her cry,moan, screech, wave and roll.

Recent weather combined with the Instructor's sculpting tools helped to create a planet Krypton looking landscape with plates and shards of ice arranged into a glass-like sculptures. Waves rolling under ice and snow shifted the palette north and south, east and west. Along with a snowy owl flapping its wings above my head waiting for a rabbit to show itself, the shapes, colors, sounds and scents provided endless gratitude and kickstarted ideas galore when I returned to the studio.

Happy viewing. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hurry Up and Watch The Paint Dry!

When I was a house painter working for contractors I was berated for not painting fast enough. Commercial painters need to move fast in order to make a profit. I was a good painter as far as quality went but not speed. Some foreman was always yelling at me, "Katlin! Hurry it up! Stop watching the paint!"  It's not that I wasn't capable of getting a job done quickly, but I couldn't help be connected to the paint, brush and surface; I liked to watch the brush dip into the bucket and the sound it made when it touched the painting surface. I was fascinated with how the brush created its own works of art with its thousands of tiny thin hairs running back and forth across endless shingles, doors and window frames. 

Needless to say, I didn't work long with the commercial painters but got a great reputation for doing extraordinary quality work for my own customers when I started my own business. People were willing to pay more even if it meant that I was camped out at their homes for extended periods of time. But there's no better feeling than standing back, looking at and taking pride in your work while appreciating all the materials both seen and unseen that went into the final project. 

Yesterday, I started a new woodcarving project and I was fascinated by the pieces that were carved away in order to create the deign. As curls and pieces of pine fell to the floor I couldn't help notice their own beauty and decided to collect them and keep them; each one its own finished work of art; together another, and after today's carving session more will be added to the collection. 

Art, the 'finished piece' is not just what lies between the frame, it's in everything: pencil shavings, eraser shreds, dried splats of colors atop a palette, rusted nails. I'm as excited today to carve away more pine as I am to see what sails to the floor in an unintended but perfectly executed work of Art.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Beginners' Bumps

Hand-carved fleur-de-lis
Ever since I saw master carver, David Easterly's stunning work at a New York gallery last year, I have been on a quest to learn how to do what looks like the impossible with wood. Truth be told, I pestered Mr. Easterly to teach me how to carver but he refused and told me to teach myself as he did. My research into locating a teaching carver told me that there aren't too many wood carvers left in the world and even less who are willing to share their skills.

Unlike the UK and Germany where there are still a few State supported crafts' guilds, the US long ago abandoned its belief and support of arts' guilds. I was about to give up my search for a carver who could teach me intricate carving techniques when I web-stumbled upon David Calvo of Gloucester, MA. and last week plunked down a reasonable chuck of change in exchange for one of David's five day wood carving classes. It was money well spent and in just a few days I walked away with a lot of tools, knowledge and a lot more hunger to carve!

A love being a student. I like learning new things but I don't like being a beginner. I want to be an expert while only being a novice. The destination is better than the rolling roads that take you there. Or so I thought. Once I gave over to the not knowing; to the learning, to the sound of wood being scooped by steel tools; to the realization that there's no secret way to magically transfer a life-time of practice into a few days of study, the dust in my head began to settle and I gave in to being a beginner. 

The fleur-de-lis pictured above was the final project from the five day class and provided many lessons. The greatest challenge was carving grains that travel in opposite directions within the same section. David's thirty-three year's of experience made it look easy but all five students struggled with making their cuts smooth. I plan on carving several more fleur-de-lis in order to get it right. If all goes well and my neighbors don't have me evicted from the noise caused by the mallet meeting the steel carver tools, I'll start a foliage project. Until then, I'm enjoying the curves and bumps in the road of being a beginner.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Book Cover Designs

©2013 Bruce Katlin
©2013 Bruce Katlin

It is very exciting to see the front and back cover designs coming together for my first novel, Birds Like Us: The Pi Phillecroix Story. I was encouraged by others to design and create the designs myself but after ten years of working part-time on the book I just wanted someone else to do it for me. I first engaged my cousin, Karol Greene Baker who is a very talented artist to come up with a concept. She did an excellent first sketch but I knew that I had to see the entire process through to the end by creating the art work on my own. So to paper and pencil I went.

People do judge books by their covers and I had an idea of what I wanted based on the book's story and central characters. I spent a lot of time researching French architectural images and in particular the  L’ Arc de Triumph where our little feathered heroine resides. 

I came up with five different concepts and settled on the on the bottom pencil drawing shown above. To a bird that can't fly, the world is an intimidating place. Since I exhausted all efforts to have the book published via the old-fashioned, traditional route, I decided to become an independent publisher and utilize Amazon's Create Space. They offer complete publishing services sans a marketing and PR. (They do offer marketing "help" but they don't and won't market and promote your book for you so that people will buy it.)

Once I committed to the basic design I turned to the  the brilliant graphic designers at Killswitch Collective  who took my book cover sketch and infused it with color and and text which is displayed in the top image above. Meredith Reshoft, Killswitch Collective's Owner and Creative Director created six different options for me to consider. Meredith will also be formatting the book to meet Create Space requirements. Something I have no patience for. 
Each day for the next six days I'll be asking to my Facebook followers to vote on their favorite design. I'll choose the design with the most votes to be printed. Everyone who votes for the selected cover will receive an autographed copy of the book. You can view all six of the designs on my Flickr page

There's still a lot of work to be done. I'm in the process of finishing the back cover and spine designs and creating a video to accompany my Amazon author page. It's all worth it. Even if the book sells just a few copies I have learned and enjoyed myself immensely. 

Check in daily and "follow" me on Facebook and vote for your favorite cover design.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Art-ercise Pt.I

Continuing the theme of merging art and exercise, today I Art-ercised with a combo of editing my novel and an upper body dumbbell workout courtesy of the fine folks, Kelly and Daniel at

For me editing takes a lot of energy and focus and I tire and become bored easily. Let's face it, editing is not fun, it's work. So, in order to keep my energy up and focus sharp, I committed to editing one chapter at a time and upon completion I worked out with one of the many excellent exercise videos at Fitnessblender. After exercising I went back to editing. The day continued much the same with Art-ercising until I met my editing goals. I rewarded myself with an eight mile run along the lake. Now, I'm really focused.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


Combing two of my passions art and exercise, I am embarking on a new project entitled, Artercise. Both disciplines provide a lot of peace, joy and positive energy, so why not combine them? 

There are countless research papers that tout the benefits of exercise on the brain that include enhanced learning, innovation and creativity. But I don't need a Ph.D to tell me how exercise affects the central dopaminergic, noradrenergic and serotonergic systems after exercise. Ideas don't always come to me during physical exercise but usually after a run or a long bike ride they start to flow with beautiful and exciting waves of color and energy. Take for example, my Sunday high intensity workouts that combines a twenty mile bike ride with kettlebells, cross-fit and martial arts. This combination not only makes me feel good and builds confidence but it also has provided some of my most focused (without thinking or "without mind") and prosperous art work.

I'm in the process of creating the mechanics and process of creating art while running and have all sorts of ideas. One includes something like the contraption that one of Paul Newman's movie characters devised where mechanical robots with tentacle like arms take direction from music that is played. The machines paint wild abstract shapes throwing paint on large canvases until they work themselves into a tizzy. Stay tuned....

Monday, May 27, 2013

Security Guards As Art Teachers

The Art Institute of Chicago's Department of Security touts that their officers are trained to be customer focused. A challenging directive considering the responsibilities they have. Never-the-less, I have found them to be just that whenever I've confronted them with a question or alerted them to patrons using the flash on their cameras.

Last week we went to see the The Yoshida Family: Three Generations of Japanese Print Artists exhibition where I witnessed one of AIC's top-notch security officers in action. A child being a child was bouncing off the walls in between several of the incredible Yoshida wood block prints. The heroine in uniform kindly informed the parents to control their child. All were sorry and apologetic.

I complemented the officer on her tactful and friendly demeanor and a conversation ensued about the importance of children getting introduced to the arts at an early age. She told me she had an idea that she was going to propose to the museum's directors that would encourage art appreciation and education in children. Her idea was simple: upon exiting the museum every child would receive a small sketchbook and pencil. A great idea; simple, inexpensive and rewarding too.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Black ink on paper
Cool breezes and calming sea waters lap at the pylons that support your hand-built home. No troubles reside here. All is peaceful for you and your neighbors. Fresh water and natural foods are abundant; you want for nothing and give back more than you take. You are accepted and are an integral part of all flora and fauna; all you are one and perfectly placed - you do not question. Whatever is, is. It is as it should be or already has been.

Your labor is easy and enjoyable. Life is always meaningful. The air you breath is meditation. You have no need to climb that mountain; you climb it if there's a desire to be on a journey not to get to the top. You sail, if you like towards the horizon on the sea only to float on its back and not to arrive somewhere where you're not.

Friday, March 8, 2013

83 Days In The Sun

The French playwright, Romain Rolland wrote, "It is the artist's business to create sunshine when the sun falls."  If Rolland was referring to hope than every artist should be creating a lot of sunshine during the bleak winters of Chicago. 

According to Current Results the average number of "sunny days" in Chicago, (the total days in a year when the sky is mostly clear including days when clouds cover up to 30% of the sky during daylight hours.) is just 83 days. That's approximately 72% of non-sunny days. Again, according to Current Results if, you include partly sunny days, those that have cloud covering from 40% to 70%  and other days that are mainly overcast, with at least 80% cloud cover, the total average days "with sun" are 189. I'm not buying Current Results' calculations for the total number of days with sun. Especially since they include days where the ski has 80% cloud cover. And even if you do that means there's an average of 176 days without sun per year which equates to 48% of the year. Either way you face it, it's bleak in Chicago a lot of the time and that affects a lot of people in a lot of non-creative ways.

The Mayo Clinic describes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as, "sapping your energy and making you feel moody." Yep, that's right. Of course, the symptoms they list may look like they align with other conditions but call it whatever you like people here are cranky and complain about the lack of sun a lot. A phycologist friend of mine told me that her non-depressed friends considering becoming patients every year between the months of September and March. 

Last month (January) shined 13 "sunny days' in Chicago and almost drove me and my wife to purchase a $600 light therapy lamp. We opted for a Southwest Airlines' travel special to Santa Fe, NM where they claim to enjoy 283 sunny days per year. We weren't disappointed. The minute we stepped out into New Mexico sun our spirits lifted and so too did the desire to create.

We headed straight to Sante Fe which seemed to have more art museums and 'art' related businesses that I've seen anywhere in the world. The museums are so focused that even in if you're in a rush you can view and take in each of their collections in 60 minutes. With the air so clean, the light so bright, the art so abundant, and the people so warm, I could easily see myself living and creating there. And create I did. That's not to say that I stop painting during the bleak winter months in Chicago but the colors take on well, different colors under a dark gray sky. So opposite to Rolland's above quote I will strive to remember

John Ruskin's, "Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather." 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A old and dear actor friend once said to me, "Art is our only hope." He was referring to how art holds a mirror to humanity reflecting the best and worst of all things human. The above quote which caught my eye from a table at the Artists' Cafe, is stenciled in marble and hangs above the entrance way to an old and grand theatre in Chicago. After spending the day at the Art Institute seeing the above was quite fitting.