So Much Air

“There is a Zen story about a man riding a horse that is galloping very quickly. Another man, standing alongside the road, yells at him, ‘Where are you going?’  and the man on the horse yells back, ‘I don’t know. Ask the horse.’ I think that is our situation. We are riding many horses that we cannot control.”

 – Thích Nhất Hạnh, Being Peace

The other day, I sanded down a painting I thought I’d finished a year ago.

It is one of a group of ten I’ve been working on for more than a decade. Every now and then I’ve trotted them out, tried again, made perhaps some small progress. Last year, I was pleased to finally resolve three of them.

Or so I thought.

For months, the three “finished” paintings sat quietly in a corner of my studio. Then, one started nagging at me. (“I am too tight. I am too closed. There is no air.”)

Paintings do not lie. They can show us the way, or reveal when we are lost (or need to be). When they do, we have to pay attention.

So I sanded it down.

My methodology has always involved erasure: I build a painting up, become lost in its marks, then rub it out, allowing the residue to offer hints on how to proceed. Sanding a painting down is not a rarity.

No, my surprise came in what the backed-down painting said to me: rather than wanting me to meticulously rebuild an image (as has always been the case), the painting was suggesting that the aftereffect of the erasure was the arrival.

It wanted me to mostly leave it be.

The thought went against every fiber of habit.

What – just let it go? Hands off? Surrender to the accidental?

It was clear, and terrifying.

I recalled something I’ve observed in certain painters’ works as they aged: a softening of brushstroke, a relaxation of finish. The phenomenon is not universal, but it’s common: older artists loosen up.

At 80, Alice Neel leaves drips of blue and stains of yellow bleeding across her raw self-portrait’s unfussy surface; just a few years from death, Rembrandt lays down paint seemingly willy-nilly, a flurry of motion magically coalescing as form and light; Palmer Hayden as an old man makes Blue Nile – all pattern and color, line and rhythm, the realism of his prior career a mere footnote of huts and trees in the background.

Tight control gives way to artless touch. Raw passages replace polished outcomes. Technique looks more like surrender than command. The artists are letting go, their work guileless and alive.

We control so little in life, and with age, if we’re lucky, we come to understand this. Our powers wane. The veil thins. As with the Buddhist parable of the man on his runaway horse, release becomes the way.

Reckoning with this truth has been (and is) my task.

I recently wrote about the serenity I now have at home in Maine. The journey here has been dizzying: I had to let go of so much, and all of that frightening release has also brought me so much.

Permitting that release – having enough faith to let go – is hard. Acceptance is hard.

And it is liberating.

Having sanded my painting down, I tremble: there is so much air.

IMAGE CREDITS: Alice Neel, Self‐Portrait, 1980, oil on canvas, 53 1/4 × 39 3/4 inches (Metropolitan Museum of Art; © The Estate of Alice Neel); Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1659, oil on canvas, 84.5 x 66 cm (National Gallery of Art); Palmer Hayden, Blue Nile, 1964, watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper, 54.6 x 70.8 cm (Museum of Modern Art, Committee on Drawings and Prints Fund).

Ed Epping

Isolate by Ed Epping, 2018, vintage canvas cot cover, hand-embroidery stitches,  67” x 32” unstretched

It’s a numbing number: 100,000.

That’s the number of people in solitary confinement in US prisons on any given day. It is also the number of hand-sewn stitches artist Ed Epping uses to embroider the solitary figure depicted in his piece, Isolate.



How do you translate potent data into something that is also visually interesting? 

That was the challenge Ed faced when he began exploring over-criminalization and mass imprisonment in the United States in 2015 with The Corrections Project.

“You have to first catch a viewer’s eye, then—from that—trust that curiosity leads them to want to understand what the art is about.”

He hit the mark with Isolate, which hooks the viewer instantly: The jumpsuit-orange silhouette of a solitary female figure is curled in the fetal position on a vintage canvas cot cover, the word “NUMBER” in prison-stripe black and white branded across the center

The visual alone is compelling.

And then the viewer learns it’s composed of 100,000 stitches sewn in a basic tally-mark pattern suggesting the marking of time.

Then the story behind those stitches: each represents one of the 100,000 people in solitary confinement, living in rooms no bigger than closets 23 hours a day and deprived of all we think of as humane.

And then that word: “NUMBER.”

“There’s this double meaning,” notes Ed. “Depending on how you see the word, it can mean a different thing.” An objective reader may focus on the data and see a numeric reference, but “some who have been in the position the work depicts may read it as about numbness. That’s why I am attracted to heteronyms; they don’t decide how they are to be read.”


Although The Corrections Project addresses a pressing social issue, Ed’s focus on the topic is rooted in personal experience.

“In 1956, when I was 7 years old, my father was sentenced to 5½ years in prison for defrauding funds from the state of Illinois,” he recalls. “He was an accountant, and was clever and manipulative; he knew how to manage numbers.”

Within six months of entering incarceration, Ed’s father became the bookkeeper for the prison warden and within three years he began living in the prison greenhouse, removed from the general prison population in relative comfort.

“It was because he was white,” says Ed, noting that his father’s privilege touched him and his mother, too. “While he was imprisoned we never had to leave our upper-middle class home; we never were hungry. We weren’t wealthy, but we were privileged,” unlike so many families of the incarcerated.

For decades, Ed’s formative childhood experience percolated. As he approached retirement from years of teaching art, he looked beyond his father’s comparatively easy imprisonment, focusing instead on the huge toll of mass incarceration on those most commonly victimized by it.

“Though The Corrections Project is prompted by my relationship to my father’s prison experience, that’s not what it’s explicitly about. I wanted to explore incarceration and over-criminalization more broadly, and look at the populations most impacted by criminal justice abuse: Black and Brown people” (who are five times more likely than whites to be incarcerated).

“Understanding the complexities of scale is a challenge for most individuals. We hear large numbers and find it difficult to imagine how that quantity appears.”


The Abolitionist’s Ledger is another example of a piece animating grim numbers.

The work is primarily composed of an enormous (1500-page) ledger, each page containing 1500 orange-outlined cells. Ed has made a pencil mark to occupy each, a total of 2,300,000 individual marks (one for each prisoner in the United States). The ledger sits on a table along with an eraser, brush, and container. An accompanying bench invites viewers to sit, and at the bottom of each page is a written instruction: Gently erase each cell. Complete as many as you are able. Collect your erasure residue and please locate in the container sitting on the desk.”

In robotic administrative language, the directive asks the viewer to complete a simple task. But when we recall each pencil mark stands for a life – so easily erased, swept away, and replaced – we are called up short by the horror of our complicity (as citizens) in a coldly bureaucratic system yielding such immense human cost.

The Corrections Project is a tool for advocacy as much as an art project. In his solitary vigil in the studio, with each stitch and every pencil mark, Ed offers an appeal, counting the countless.

Ed Epping is an imagist and activist living in New Mexico who taught art at Williams College for 40 years, retiring as the A.D. Falk Professor of Studio Art in 2017. More of his work including The Corrections Project can be seen at his website.This story is an updated version of an article that first appeared in Bruun Studios’ Yarrow & Cleat in September 2020.

March 2022

Coming Soon:
Becoming: Imboden & Royster

On Wednesday, March 16, 7:00 p.m. EST, we sit down with artists Connie Imboden and Ken Royster to explore how they have come to make the art they make. Created over time and in sequence, with one thing following another, works of art are rarely one-offs: there is always precedent, always a reason for art being as it is. Join us as we look specifically at how decisions that seem light at the time can have outsized consequences. Learn more and register here.

This Can Be Yours

With each newsletter, we are now offering a work of art by Peter. This 8″x8″ watercolor on paper from 1993 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

Available for Viewing:
Becoming: Cherry & Cleaver

On Thursday, February 17, Peter spoke with artists Schroeder Cherry and Richard Cleaver about their work, exploring the impact of physical challenges each has faced on the evolution of their art. The hour-long conversation is now online and available to be watched. Go here for a link to the recording and to read all about the Becoming conversation series.

“Secret Painting”

Secret Painting, 1994, 16.5″x16.5″, oil on panel

Colors swirl, spitting outward like fireworks against a night sky – shapes fragmented and flying.

There is a story behind this painting.

For seven years, I had been making art based on self-portraiture. I would begin every piece by making marks from looking at my reflection in a mirror, then allow each piece to dictate its form. Over time, the works became more densely marked, increasingly abstract. Yet no matter how colorfully fractured the art became, each image invariably sat centered within its square format, bordered in white.

The figure was contained. Even restrained.

I assumed this one would be too.

A common misunderstanding about abstract art is that it is always non-narrative. In many instances, that is so: Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still said of his work that “demands for communication are both presumptuous and irrelevant” – many working in an abstract mode would say the same of their own art. But such has never been true for me – there is always a psychological edge, if not a direct autobiographical anecdote behind what I make. My art almost always has a story (even if I am not aware of it until the painting is done).

I toiled at the then-unnamed Secret Painting for months. I built it up, I scraped it down, I tried again. With each effort, the one unchanging aspect (as with all my preceding work) was the white border left intact: I simply could not imagine any other way of making a painting.

But the restrictive white border had stopped working for me.

I can’t recall the moment of breakthrough – the first brushstrokes layering the edges in blacks, browns, and blues over my ubiquitous titanium white – but I do remember that once I did it, I knew that was the way to go. Released from the boundary, the painting became what it needed to become.

And then I knew what it was about.

Secret Painting has a story – a moment of personal evolution –  but the specifics aren’t the point.

Here’s the point: as with dreaming, making art helps me process life, with painterly decisions driven by what lies just beneath consciousness (“I’ve no fears about making changes for the painting has a life of its own,” said Jackson Pollock). Something had been happening in my life, and Secret Painting – breaking the edge, removing the boundary – helped me make sense of it, as art so often does.

Secret Painting is one of several works from the 1990s that have recently been added to the Main Gallery and Sales Gallery at the Bruun Studios website.