Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine






H U M A N I T I E S    &    T H E    A R T S

Author's Notebook
Cultivate Mess
By Dale Keiger

When first I walked into Raoul Middleman's studio, the smell of linseed oil, stacked canvases, and solvents took me straight back to my childhood. My father is a painter, and for me the odor of oil painting does what baking cookies might do for other folks. I was right back in my dad's shop, wondering how he could get a brush to do whatever he wanted, and wondering why I couldn't. I had a similarly evocative experience looking at Middleman's industrial cityscapes; some of my earliest boyhood memories are of long walks with my father through poor neighborhoods in Cincinnati, as he looked for subjects to paint.

Perhaps because I grew up with a man who paints, sculpts, and takes excellent photographs, I've always been at ease around visual people painters, photographers, designers. With Raoul, it was no different. His knowledge of art far exceeds mine, but I think he sensed my deep interest, and from the start was an agreeable participant in long, rambling conversations about art, light, teaching, and the business of being a professional artist.

I try to observe my subjects in as many different settings as I can. No matter what the situation painting, ordering lunch, teaching a class, addressing the chardonnay-and-brie set at a gallery opening, joshing his wife Raoul was the same guy. Observant, funny, irreverent, deeply engaged by the process of art.

The structure of this piece is looser than what I usually do. The closest I get to narrative is the progression of the still-life Raoul paints over the course of a darkening afternoon. But any conversation with him wanders all over the place, and I wanted to convey some sense of that. Artists, in my experience, are not people who go in a straight line. They are process, not goal, oriented. I wanted a loose, baggy story that took in Raoul in the same meandering way that he takes in the world. And if I got some paint on my shoes in the process, so much the better.