KURT COBAIN: Brahmin monk in disguise

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Kurt Cobain

by Colin Keane

Kurt Donald Cobain, one of the greatest rock stars America has ever produced, ended up tragically committing suicide while on top of his talent.  Cobain was born in 1967 in the small town of Aberdeen, Washington.  In 1987, he formed the grunge rock band Nirvana with Krist Novoselic and within a few years took it to the top.  Nirvana released its debut album, Bleach, in 1989 to underground acclaim.  The band’s second album, Nevermind, attracted mainstream radio, which—along with the influence of MTV—made Nirvana popular worldwide.

Nirvana’s music has remained influential to music lovers from all walks of life.  Like a Picasso or Kahlo, Cobain is  an artist whose work is timeless, and whose persona thus attracts curiosity from a modern audience.  Since Cobain’s death, there have been an overwhelming amount of cultural portrayals of him; it’s difficult to peer through the mythology to understand the artist.  The Sankofa Review asked Colin Keane to present Cobain as he is: painter, writer, musician, and Brahmin monk.

“He who in his vision is free from doubts and, having all, longs for nothing, for he has reached the immortal nirvana—him I call a Brahmin.” –The Dhammapada*

Nirvana co-founder Krist Novoselic says Kurt Cobain “would’ve been a great monk.With pop cultural lore depicting Cobain as something else entirely—a poster boy for rock ‘n roll vice and excess—Sankofa decided to investigate Novoselic’s claim:

Could Kurt Cobain have been a monk?

A reading of The Dhammapada—the “how-to” for aspiring Brahmin monks—reveals that several of the virtues required for monkhood, Cobain himself possessed.  Coincidentally, we find these same virtues contributing to Cobain’s brilliance as an artist.  Here are a few:

1. Strength of mind over body

“Considering that this body is frail like a jar, make your mind strong like a fortress…” (Mascaró 41)

It’s easy to imagine Cobain renouncing the body completely and championing the mind, in the manner of a Brahmin monk.  Cobain suffered from intense stomach pain throughout life and often expressed disdain for his thin frame.  It was strength of mind that allowed Cobain to conquer his physical pain.  Despite his stomach condition, Cobain created timeless music and traveled the world.  Cobain even transformed his bodily pain into a vehicle for his art.  In Kurt’s burning stomach we discover the source of his voice.

2. Determination to swim upstream

“And the man whose mind, filled with determination… ‘he who goes upstream’… he is bound for the joy of the Infinite.” (67)

The cultural myth of Cobain portrays a lazy truant, but in fact Kurt was quite determined and active, at least in the name of his art.  Beneath the disguise of a “slacker” we find a musician rehearsing incessantly and touring the world.  Nirvana’s music and artistic vision drove fiercely against the mainstream, and at its origin was a writer, Cobain, who launched this vision from a logging city, of all places (Aberdeen, Washington).

Cobain’s ability to manifest his artistic dream in the face of familial and social alienation is proof of the artist’s determination.  Just as the Brahmin forges ahead in the face of peers tempting him from his path, Cobain chased a vision that few others believed in or supported where he grew up.  To pursue music, Cobain had to emerge from an environment stacked against him.

3. Ever striving

“Those who have high thoughts are ever striving: they are not happy to remain in the same place.” (48)

Cobain was very ambitious, and for this reason found difficulty enjoying his success.  Just as a Brahmin ever strives to attain enlightenment, Cobain lived a restless life, often chasing an ideal or some higher sense of personal freedom.  Punk rock was the ideal Cobain sought to embody as a young man, but at some point in his maturity Kurt became disenchanted with this ideal.

The artist is just like the Brahmin with his instinct to evolve, to avoid stagnation.  Having achieved global success in the music industry, Cobain may have abandoned music completely and pursued his talents in visual art or writing had he lived.

4. Perspective on wealth

“…one is the path of earthly wealth, and another is the path of nirvana.  Let the follower of Buddha think of this and… let him ever strive after freedom.” (45)

Listening to Cobain’s candid thoughts on wealth, it’s clear that money did not bring Cobain fulfillment or inspiration.

Kurt Cobain copy

Cobain photographed by Jesse Frohman in New York City, 1993

There is also proof of this in his work.  Consider In Utero, Nirvana’s follow-up to the commercially explosive Nevermind.  Had Cobain been influenced by the attainment of wealth, he would have crafted In Utero essentially as a Nevermind: Part II.

Yet the album is a radical departure, and far less commercial than its predecessor.  With tracks like “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “Scentless Apprentice”, Cobain is blatantly eschewing commerciality for artistry.  Novoselic has said of the album, “In Utero is a testament to the artistic vision of Kurt Cobain.”

In the style of a true Brahmin, Cobain sought personal freedom over wealth; he merely strove for this freedom through his art, rather than through religious observance.  Cobain remains relevant because his music still entertains and inspires, but also because his persona is endlessly interpretable.  Why add to the heaps of regurgitated caricatures of Cobain the “doomed artist”?  Viewing Cobain as a Brahmin monk gives us a fresh perspective of his noble cause, and it consequently uncovers certain origins of his greatness.

*The Dhammapada is a collection of aphorisms that epitomize the Buddhist moral system.  The selections included in this article come from Juan Mascaró’s 1973 translation.

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By Gabriela Dellosso

“Fool the Eye” is how the genre of Trompe l’oeil is defined. A well known example being “Which is Which”(collection of the Brandywine River Museum of Art), by artist Jefferson David Chalfont (1856-1931) depicting a realistically painted postage stamp, placed right next to an actual postage stamp (in this particular work of art the viewer is asked to identify to the real stamp and which was painted). As Trompe l’oeil developed compositions emerged from artists like William Michael Harnett (1848-1892) and John F. Peto (1854-1907). They had great skill to accomplish successful Trompe l’oeil paintings and they painted unconventional subjects, that historical still life paintings never included. They painted everyday things, like paper currency, worn old books or a rusty old horseshoe that is nailed on a wall (like Harnett’s The Golden Horseshoe, 1886).

The Big Splash copy

When I first saw the paintings of Gary Erbe, I saw a tremendous amount of creativity and originality that distinguished his work from his predecessors. He combines ideas and themes and plays realism against modern, flat elements, resulting in unique visuals. His work bridges classic and modern principles seamlessly. Gary has had an incredibly long and successful career as a painter. His body of work spans five decades. The level of quality is incredibly consistent over a 50 year time period.

Mastery is something all artists dream of achieving. It requires the artist’s complete and focused dedication in creating the work. A master has a singular vision that is like a fingerprint, a unique identity that will separate him/her from the crowd. The body of work they leave behind is influential to future generations. It has been very inspiring for me, to observe all of the above, in Gary’s work. I consider him a great mentor and friend and an example of virtuosity. It is remarkable to note that he is self-taught. I first met Gary over 20 years ago, when he was President of Allied Artist of America . He was a very dedicated president for Allied ,resulting in his being awarded President Emeritus. What I learned from my friend and mentor through many conversations is staying true to yourself and your vision. Gary’s world revolves around his art. He has flawless work habits. He paints everyday, starting his work day at 6am and ending at 4pm. He has a wonderful partner in his wife Zeny. She is incredibly supportive and helps Gary with many tasks that would otherwise take up his valuable painting time. That 100% dedication to his craft , is what gives his work its depth, both in vision and technique. I am reminded of something I read once about another American Master, Norman Rockwell. Rockwell used to put a sign on his easel 100%–he gave no less and that is what I see in Gary and his work.

Jazz copy

A wonderful example and one of my favorite paintings of his is “Virtuoso”. The subject of the violin was a favorite of William Harnett and John Peto. Both Harnett and Peto’s paintings show a violin painted in a classical manner. Gary is inventive with his depiction of the violin and creates something very original.

Here we see a combination of imagination and skill. We are introduced to a violin in a completely new way. The violin is recognizable, but it is composed of a series of colors, shapes, combined with classically painted elements like the realistic bow. The color combinations invite the viewer to explore the shapes as they enhance the idea of the violin and the music it creates. The horizontal and vertical lines echo throughout the painting, but always lead back to the central element of the violin, like a melody, where there are repeated rhythms and harmonies to form a song.

Composition in Red White and Blue copyComposition in Red White and Blue, 1975, Oil on Canvas, 72 x112 in, Private Collection

“In Composition in Red White and Blue” you find your self immersed in the vertical and horizontal elements of the flags. The subtleties invite the viewer to examine the subject of this picture, the differences of the types of flags, the details of wrinkles in the fabric of the flags, the variety of the textures and transparencies in the flags add to the intrigue of the painting.

Here are more examples of Gary’s work:

Take Five copyTake Five, 1981-82, Oil on Canvas, 64×54 in Collection of Max N. Berry and Pamela Thomas

The Big Splash copyThe Big Splash, 2001, Oil on Canvas, 40×50 in, Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Cusenza

The 50'sThe 50’s, 1991, Oil on Canvas, 64 x84 in, Collection of Ira Kent

Gary is currently embarking on a 50 year retrospective tour where you can see his work in person.

The retrospective exhibition opens at:

The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, OH http://butlerart.com/exhibitions-2/
Butler Museum Exhibition Dates: May 14 -August 6, 2017.Then it travels to the Brinton Museum, Big Horn, WY http://thebrintonmuseum.org/events/#exhibition
Brinton Museum Exhibition Dates: September 16 – November 30, 2017
Then it travels to the Reading Public Museum, Reading, PA http://www.readingpublicmuseum.org/plan-your-visit
Reading Museum Dates: June 5 – September 9, 2018
The next venue is the John F. Peto Studio Museum, Island Heights, NJ http://petomuseum.org

Subway SeriesSubway Series, 2008, Oil on Canvas, 55 x 45 in, The Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY

Peto Museum Dates: September 22- December 16, 2018

The Butler Institute of American Art is also celebrating this landmark in his successful career as an artist by publishing a 300 page book . The large format scholarly written volume is hard cover with over 250 illustrations. This is the most comprehensive book written about Gary and his groundbreaking work. The 11 chapters are written by art historians and scholars, providing insight to the artist’s life and over 50 years of creating an impressive body of work. Here is an outline of the chapters. Contributing writers are Dr. Thomas Folk, Dr. Carol Lowrey, Dr. Christine I. Oaklander, Carter Ratcliff, Dr. Michael Schantz and Dr. Louis A. Zona.

It is a rare opportunity to gain an insight to Gary’s work.

Chapters include his 1. bio, 2. his early years, 3. The American Flag, 4. Modern Principles, 5. Pop Culture, 6. Sports, 7. Social Commentaries, 8. Sculpture, 9. Constructions, 10. Technical Aspects and 11. A detailed chronology.

Gary personally devotes one chapter, on the technical aspects associated with painting, including how to prepare canvas like the old masters, the special formula for the oil medium he uses, the proper varnish to use and the palette.

Chapter 9 discusses his constructions. Gary’s technical process involves fabricating a construction with various mediums. The purpose of the construction is to develop the idea, composition, color and subject matter. Then he actually paints from observation, from the original construction which serves as his model. Here is a picture of his latest construction for his painting “Jazz”.

Erbe book cover copyA signed copy of Gary Erbe’s collectable book” Footprints” is available on amazon.com.
Here is the link: http://a.co/e2bXBC6
Or you can call the artist directly for a signed copy at 973-562-0067 .

Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso received her BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.  Her first one- woman exhibition took place in 2006 at the Butler Institute of American Art, followed by a solo at The Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in 2008. Her work is in the permanent collections of The Butler Institute of American Art, OH; The Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY; and many other important museums in the country.

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Honest Strokes of John Lasater

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With plenty of self-awareness and introspection, plein-air painter John P. Lasater IV explores the many challenges of finding his own voice as an artist.


Signature_Iterview_nameJK: John, you’re known as a landscape painter who works outside on location, or “en plein air,” as they say. What attracts you to this method of landscape painting?

JL: Painting outside on location gives me something to study. Working from photographs just doesn’t give me enough information. For instance, I have a deep love for color. I love seeing the harmonies in color, and to see that, I have to go outside in nature. With photographs, I don’t have all of the options available to me. When I’m outside, I can turn to my right or my left and see motifs in the same light that I can work from. Plus, I just love being outdoors.

JK: Do you paint landscapes in the studio? And if you do, how is your studio work different from your plein-air work?


JL: I usually only do studio work for commissions, and in those cases I’ll work from my studies and my imagination. But I’m starting to do bigger work outside, like 24 x 30 inches. I’d rather do that. That’s what you’re going to see from me. I start lots of larger works on location and then later return to those same locations at the same time of day to finish them.

JK: You’re also known for painting night-time scenes. Tell me why.

JL: Oh, no! If I’m becoming labeled as the nocturne painter, I would run from that. I’m just doing it because it’s new to me and fun to do. I don’t want to be known as the nocturne painter. I want to be a total artist.

JK: Okay, so why is it fun for you? How is painting on location at night different from painting in daylight?

JL: Working in daylight is a lot more difficult because of all the variations. Painting a nocturne is more like painting a still life—nothing moves and the colors don’t change. But then again, there are other challenges to painting at night. You have to be at home in the dark. At night, I get sort of quiet and meditative, and even a little sleepy, but that can translate into the painting in a beautiful way.

rainy-day-frederick-oil-on-linen-18-x-14-by-john-lasaterJK: You participate in a lot of plein-air painting competitions all over the country. What do you enjoy about them?

JL: Well, in addition to the great exposure and the ability to show and sell my work, I enjoy the camaraderie of other artists. Competitions also give me the chance to travel. I married young and started a family so we didn’t travel much back then, but now I have a great excuse to travel for business and occasionally take my family with me.

JK: Is it a challenge to adapt to each new location? I’ve heard artists talk about how the light is different in different places around the world.

JL: You know, I’ve been up north and down south and even out to Hawaii to paint, and I really think the light is basically the same everywhere. To be honest, I shy away from those kind of romantic notions about a place. I don’t want to make assumptions and look for the special “air” in Florida or assume the water is “more blue” in Hawaii. I just want to respond to each new subject exactly as I see it. I’m preparing to stay pure and be honest in every painting. I want to step into every situation with the eyes of a child and see the basic structure of what I’m looking at without any bias or prejudice.

JK: Tell me the story of how you came to be a full-time artist.

JL: Well, it all started with the crayon… no, I’m just kidding. I started out in advertising, and then went on to become an illustrator, art director, and designer for 10 years. I really enjoyed that job, but in the corporate world I sensed that I wasn’t using my full ability. Meanwhile, I was falling in love with fine art, with painting. So about five years ago, I felt a Spiritual release that I could leave my job. My wife and I agreed that I should quit and devote myself to painting full time, and just take a few freelance jobs from my former employer to help us get by at first. At the time, I knew I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was willing to take time to grow into my career, and I knew that working at it full time would help me get there faster.

long-shadows-on-the-pass-oil-on-linen-20-x-24-by-john-lasaterJK: Was your experience as an illustrator beneficial to you?

JL: Yes! The basics of drawing, design, and color appear in all art, so I’ve been able to apply a lot of what I learned as an illustrator to my fine art. Also, as an art director, you have to get good at generating a lot of ideas and knowing how to select the best of them. I have a lot of ideas for my fine art because of that training, and I’ve developed a voice in my head that asks, “Is this the best idea? Have I taken this idea to the highest level?” But you know, we’re afforded a lot of liberties in art thanks to the 20th century, so there’s a much larger world to be nurtured in. Illustration has lost its appeal to me because it’s about pleasing a consumer. I would much rather have a personal standard that is higher than anyone else’s.

ephraim-view-oil-on-linen-11-x-14-by-john-lasaterJK: Tell me more about that.

JL: There’s a fine line between pleasing collectors and pleasing artists. A few years ago, I recognized that a tighter style was generally more pleasing to collectors, and since a large part of my livelihood revolves around selling work at plein-air events, my work got tighter and tighter. But more recently I started to realize that I wanted to keep growing as an artist, for myself, but also in the eyes of other artists. I also recognized that if I focused on pleasing the collectors, my career would be less sustainable. Basically, you have to choose one way or the other. So, my work has changed a lot over the last several years, and I expect it to continue to change as I grow as an artist. I feel a greater satisfaction with my work now as I find my own voice and search for my own heroes and mentors. I also want to do my part in keeping painting alive as an art form. There are people who say that everything that can be done in art has been done, and in the middle of the 20th century artists pushed painting just about as far as they could go. But now it’s come back around full circle. I want to prop up painting as an art form and to encourage others to do that also. It’s such a good time to be an artist. I see so many great new artists coming up.

JK: So you mentioned heroes and mentors. Who are some, and why are they important to you?

JL: You know, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the work of other living artists, but now I’m really ready to go back and create a personal lexicon of deceased artists in order to refine my own style. I want to start copying paintings and learning from them. Rather than painting as an act of homage to living artists, I want to treat it as an act of homage to those who have gone before.

JK: So who are you talking about specifically?

JL: Right now I’m looking at Degas. I’m really interested in the way he thought about perspective and form. I’m also studying Corot, particularly his outdoor paintings from Italy. The first ones I saw I didn’t like, but now that I’ve been to Italy and seen the places he painted, it’s clear he was way ahead of his time. I have looked past so many styles of art but now I want to go back and learn all I can. A great example is Italian Renaissance artists like Piero della Francesca and others who were incredible designers. It’s surprising to me, now, how many artists in Western art history harkened to Renaissance influence.

evening-marina-oil-on-linen-16-x-20-by-john-lasaterJK: You’ve just named quite a few important formal qualities of art. What, in your opinion, is the most important formal quality in your work?

JL: The very first thing for me is design—the placement of the shapes and the creation of interesting shape-patterns. For me, that trumps atmosphere and color. Design has more to do with shadow and light, and I love strong structures.

Something else that I’ve been thinking about lately is this notion of “finish.” There is no finish in nature or in life, so we should drop this idea in art. Life is all about beginnings. But there is such a thing as completeness. I want to start out every painting with a complete idea or at least the potential of one. I sometimes like to challenge myself by resolving the design as I paint. And I’m always looking for new design structures because I don’t want to rely on a set of existing design structures. Either way, I want each painting to have a complete idea, and to be resolved in a way that pleases me, not just what I know collectors will like.

radiant-light-oil-on-linen-12-x-12-by-john-lasaterJK: John, I know you also teach workshops. What’s the most important thing you try to communicate to your students?

JL: I want them to be willing students, to use a workshop as a learning experience. I want them to just try what I’m saying and demonstrating, and maybe they’ll have added some new things to their toolbox by the time we’re done. We discuss things like design, color hierarchy, value hierarchy, movement, line, and the “flow” of painting, and there is usually lots of critique time so they come away with plenty to chew on. The feedback has been great—­humbling really. All upcoming workshops can be viewed on my website at http://www.lasaterart.com/workshops.

lahaina-glow-oil-on-linen-12-x-20-by-john-lasaterJK: Is there any message or emotion you hope people take away from viewing your work?

JL: Hmmm, I know that whatever you fix your mind and heart on, it comes through in your art. I hope the condition of my soul comes through, and that they can relate emotionally with it.

This is actually something else I’m wrestling with a little bit. On this quest to become a better artist, I don’t want to become so heady that I lose people. I want to bring people along with me. I want to raise the level of sophistication of the collector.

JK: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you and your work?

My work is going to keep changing, and I’m having a lot of fun. I believe that every person has art in their spirit, which is why artists need to be the most welcoming of all circles. To keep painting alive, we have to educate, and we have to welcome people in. I believe the plein-air movement does that, so I’m never going to be caught trying to tear down this wonderful explosion of interest in art.

John P. Lasater IV will be participating in two plein-air painting competitions this month—one in Laguna Beach, California, and the other in San Angelo, Texas—and is already scheduled to appear at several other competitions in 2017. To see more of John’s award-winning art, or to learn about his workshops and DVDs, please visit his website at www.lasaterart.com

[From top: Paintings by John Lasater ]

Elkhorn Avenue, oil on linen, 18 x 18
Rainy Day, Frederick, oil on linen, 18 x 14
Long Shadows on the Pass, oil on linen, 20 x 24
Ephraim View, oil on linen, 11 x 14
Evening Marina, oil on linen, 16 x 20
Radiant Light, oil on linen, 12 x 12
Lahaina Glow, oil on linen, 12 x 20


Jennifer King is a marketer, artist, writer, and entrepreneur. A long time student of art marketing and the fine art industry, she currently provides art marketing services and coaching to visual artists through her company, Connect Artist Marketing. Learn more at www.connectartistmarketing.com.

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