“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” 

― James Joyce, The Dead

That’s my great-great-grandfather on the right, Eleazer Hart; one hand in his pocket, the other holding spectacles. He’s standing in front of Hart’s Jewelry Company in Kansas City, Missouri.

The year is 1892.

This past Thanksgiving, we had a reunion on my mother’s side of the family. With a few absent, there were 36 of us: my mother, her brother and sister, their children and grandchildren, some married into the family. A high point was my uncle sharing the genealogy work he’s been doing, including uncovering this photo.

The year is now 2021.

Children of children, parents of parents, together looking backward and forward, finding pattern and rhyme, dream to dream, longing to longing, rise and wane and rise again.

1847: Philip Hart emigrates from England to America. A milliner by trade, he marries Julia Speyer shortly after arriving. Their son Eleazer, born ten years later, gives them 13 grandchildren including my great-grandmother, Hazel Hart, who (according to family lore) was a “singer on the stage” (a bohemian for sure).

Hazel died in 1953 (I never knew her).

I was born in 1963.

In 2024, it will be ten years since Elisif died.

Ten years.

Hand in pocket, does Eleazer wonder at generations to come – at me – as I wonder at him, his wants and dreams? Who does he grieve, as I grieve my daughter?

From here to there, ancestors parade, in grief and grace, in love and loss. Blood and breath and bone – ethereal weight and ineffable light. The me in you, you in me – our sorrows, hopes, beauty and pain in gossamer thread – us as one in velvet whisper, like a thousand white and speckled feathers suspended by air: sunlit.

I moved from Baltimore to Maine two years ago needing quiet and solitude, a place to heal, to feel safe opening myself to myself – a space to make art. I came to Maine for sanctuary, and found it. Paradoxically, it has been in the solitude of my studio – physically away from my community and people – that (through my art) connection has taken the place of apartness.

Spirits in attendance – every day. 

This has become the stuff of my art: our vivid and linked humanity through birth and death – in stumble and stand – in walk and tears.

I find my way – we find our way – ancestors in pocket.


John Viles

Notes and Chords by John Viles, each 11″x15″, oil pastel on paper, 2021. Clockwise from upper left: Page 5, Page 6, Page 10, Page 7

Notes and Chords began simply enough: John Viles missed using color.

“I had completed 24 drawings in black and white and was just itching for color. I got out a bunch of oil pastel, sat down, and started drawing,” he says.

So John drew – one light-filled stripe after another.

He had no grand plan beyond the act of creating. It was familiar, making art just for the sake of making it. The new drawings brought him back to early childhood at his grandmother’s house, where she would settle him down with art supplies before going about her housework. While she did her chores, Chopin played on the stereo and John drew just to draw – like play.

Color has spoken to him ever since.

“I love to work in color – it’s something I am most drawn to – its optical qualities, its presence in the world or lack thereof,” he says.

But when John put his first few new striped drawings up on the wall, something unexpected happened.

“I started to see melody – as if the colors were piano keys speaking back to me. They seemed to be harmonizing, and that gave me the notion of working with a musician.”

John began looking for a collaborator and found one in composer Woody Lissauer, whose work he admired and who he tapped to compose 3-minute pieces to accompany each painting. The idea of having music composed to go with his own art was new for John, but the interconnectedness of art and music was not. His time at his grandmother’s house was foundational, of course, but he also had a striking moment of synesthesia at a Mark Rothko retrospective in 1998.

“In the final gallery, I started to hear Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor in my head when I looked at the work, and it started to play louder. It struck me: these were Rothko’s last paintings before he died of suicide, and Mozart’s unfinished requiem mass was his last piece. It all connected for me.”

But the concept of using music with his own work did not arise then, despite the powerful experience. For years the idea lay dormant while his art took all sorts of other directions. From the conventional figurative work of his student days at Kansas City Art Institute in the late ’70s to elaborate installations addressing issues such as the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the ’90s, his work ranged widely. Much of it was non-objective art rich in color and personal significance, but none had included the element of music – until now.

So why the shift with Notes and Chords? The answer may lie in newly awakened memories of his grandmother.

“She wanted to be a violinist, but she was from a tiny town and her parents didn’t want her to go away to the big city to study music so she put her violin away for good,” he says.

She put her violin away for good.

The woman responsible for introducing John to art making and the joy of color, the one in whom a connection between art and music is forever linked for John: she put her music away, seeing her own musical dreams dry up even as she watered artistic seeds for John.

Having started modestly enough, Notes and Chords has grown into something more than an antidote to color missed, for it not only recalls John’s earliest memories of art and music, it also – in a magically realistic way – brings his grandmother’s spirit and the spirit of her music to life.

And there is no better reason to make art than that.


With Music

So many of our art experiences take place online these days.

On my website, I have tried to adapt to this reality: I have my work professionally photographed, and on my gallery page I include a magnifying effect for up-close viewing of the works’ surfaces. In this way I try to offer a facsimile of the real thing.

But for the most part, I still favor sharing my work unmediated by technology.

Though not always.

I made Hello, Is This Peter? (shown above) while in residence at Yellow Barn Music Festival in 2017. I was inspired by Landscape IIa musical composition by Toshio Hosokawa. To my mind, the musical piece captures perfectly the emotional journey I imagined my daughter traveled suffering from substance use disorder. I wanted to make a drawing expressing that taut tightrope she walked, trying not to fall (yet falling).

This drawing is the result.

In the reproduction above, you can’t see any of that: it’s too small, words and details lost; seeing it – especially as I see it – lost.

Which is where technology becomes my friend.

Inspired by music, Hello, Is This Peter? is best experienced with the music. Thus, the video at this link. It includes as soundtrack excerpts from Landscape II, and thus conveys the spirit of dance between image and sound I had in mind in making the drawing. How else could I have shown that but through a video?

For better or worse, so many of our art experiences take place online these days. And in this case, for the better.


December 2021

Coming in 2022: Becoming

How and why do artists make the art they make – what twists, turns, and experiences shape their direction and change? In a three-part online conversation series, Bruun Studios welcomes artists Schroeder CherryRichard CleaverConnie Imboden (shown here), Vagner Mendonça-WhiteheadKen Rosyter, and Colette Veasey-Cullors as we explore that question. Watch for future information with details on dates and times on Becoming, and how you can register to attend the events.

This Can Be Yours

With each newsletter, we are now offering a work of art by Peter. This watercolor from 2012 can be yours for just $15 if you are the first to email Peter to claim it (see a large version of the drawing here). If you want to see more art for sale, visit the sales gallery at the Bruun Studios website.