View this email in your browser
david slader
art letter | no. 3. 2020 | May

The River is Rising

The River is Rising, David Slader
This painting was named by a text message. While working on the initial drawing, I received a NOAA alert that the Upper Nehalem River behind my studio was approaching flood stage. This is a fairly common winter event but still always worth grabbing a hat and venturing out to the edge of the bank to watch the rushing water. The power of the river echoed the energy of the image—a muscular dancer propelling himself forward. No nonsense Nature, no nonsense Guy.
The painting also owes a debt to a photograph, and that is the theme of this Art Letter: How “River Rising” illustrates the boundary between artistic appropriation that is plagiarism and that which is necessary to pollinate a creative culture. Steve Jobs may have misquoted Picasso when he bragged, “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” but he had a point: Nothing comes from nothing and ideas are not property. Yet creators have a right to own their creations. It is a delicate balance.

Transformation: Good Theft or Bad Theft

I collect hundreds of photographs. The ones that can’t hold still, that jump onto my drawing pad, are likely to find themselves transformed into a painting. “Transformation” is both an artistic process and a legal concept. In the law, it has been adopted as the boundary between good theft and bad.
Example One: The brilliantly complex piano composition, the Diabelli Variations, would not exist if Beethoven had not found himself humming a simple waltz melody by a now forgotten composer. What he then did with that tune, infusing it with a world of other harmonic influences, was distinctly his own. There is no court opinion, but by any definition, he “transformed” it—and created a masterpiece. Good theft.
Example Two: Jeff Koons flunked the test when he turned a postcard image, of a couple holding a litter of puppies, into a sculpture. A court held that adding the third dimension along with color, bulbous noses, and a few flowers was not sufficiently “transformative.” Bad theft.
Jeff Koons, Sculpture
And that brings me back to “The River is Rising”—a painting that would not exist if this powerful photo by Jason Skinner had not captured my eye and stuck in my brain:
Man with fan, Jason Skinner photography
If an artist made a faithful painting (or sculpture) of this photo, the law would likely say it was “derivative” and, therefore, theft of intellectual property. If, instead, an artist applied ideas from the photo to create a fundamentally different aesthetic, one imbued with “new expression, meaning, or message,” it would be considered “transformed” and, thus, “fair use.” On which side of the line does “River Rising” fall? Are the filched elements the meal or among ingredients in a unique stew of blended flavors?

Motionless Movement

One way to resolve the distinction is to see if the second artist’s work grew imaginatively or imitatively.
I am a fan of modern dance (especially Portland’s Northwest Dance Project), and I am fascinated by the artistic challenge of motionless movement: How does a static painting capture a dynamic figure? Although the above photo’s dramatic posture engaged me, the figure lacked the momentum of dance that I wanted to portray. The muscular model balancing on the toes of one foot was not going anywhere. But the arms . . . they were fabulous.
As I set to work drawing, the posture tilted forward and body parts began to exaggerate, break up, fly away or simply dissolve. Gravity played fickle. The guy started to move. This is a late stage of the drawing:
The River is Rising, David Slader - Work in progress
With the addition of irrational color, “River Rising” further abstracted and more parts of his body ran for the hills. Like jazz, what seemed to matter most was what was missing: The space between the notes.   
Here is how “River” looked after several weeks of experimenting, of paint being applied, scraped and wiped away, and over-painted:
The River is Rising, David Slader- Work in progress
This is typical of how I work. A collective of unreal shapes, lines, and colors jostle for position. Some stay, most get up and leave. Wrong party. Over days and weeks, if I am lucky, discrete elements and voids coalesce and a human figure of tethered abstraction slowly takes shape.
T.S. Eliot, noting that all poets steal, wrote this of the goalpost: “The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”  At its best, a work of art is an echo of humanity: each an individual like no other yet with undeniable antecedents without which none could exit. So I try.
The River is Rising, David Slader - Detail
I would enjoy knowing your thoughts on how best to balance the competing rights to create and to own one’s creation. Please write me at or join the conversation on Facebook.
Meanwhile, "The River is Rising" is at last resting and drying.

Moving Me

Since my art making is a sponge for the work of other artists, I like to share what I am being moved by. Here is a still life image of a dead hosta leaf by my old friend, the photographer Owen Carey. It is part of a series and it was all but impossible to pick one. You can see more or to let Owen know your thoughts by writing him at
Art is where we
find ourselves
by losing ourselves
Learn more about my art
Copyright © 2020 David Slader artist, All rights reserved.

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.