Greg Sobran

Greg Sobran

Tottered on: 15 February 2008
Temperature: 25 F
Ceiling: sunny
Ground: snow
Wind: NW at 10 mph

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TT with HD: Greg Sobran

[Ed. note: Greg's paintings of Ann Arbor area scenes plus many from around the world can be viewed at Sobran Galleries. Greg happened to be painting a streetscape at the base of the hill on the street where HD lives, which prompted an impromptu totter invitation.]

HD: So, welcome to the teeter totter!

GS: Sure, thanks!

HD: What you were doing out there today, I have to say, I find just really impressive ...

GS: ... aww, thanks!

HD: To be out working in the cold with oil paints! How long were you out there today do you suppose? Did you time it?

GS: A few hours. One time I was painting on Wilderness Park, and it was a challenge for me to get all the gear to go out and see if I could stand out in this wild place--up in the Lower Penninsula, right at the tip, there's a big wild park up there, Wilderness Park ...

HD: ... that's the name of it? Wilderness Park?

GS: Wilderness State Park. A motor home stopped, and the man came trudging over to talk to me, and I thought to myself, How far do I have to go to not be bothered by people!?

HD: [laugh] [laugh]

GS: And come to find out, it was the nephew of Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer.

HD: Oh, okay!

GS: Rand Shackleton was his name.

HD: Now, is this the guy who wrote in his journal as he slowly froze to death in his tent?

GS: No, no that might have been Cook, I think. Shackleton, Amundsen, and Cook are the big Antartcic explorers. Shackleton is known as the most successful failure. Because he never really accomplished what he set out to do ... [Ed. note: Scott was probably the explorer HD was thinking of.]

HD: ... he never actually got to the pole?

GS: No. And his men were trapped for two years as their boat was crushed by the ice...

HD: ... oh, yeah, yeah, ...

GS: ... you've heard the story now?

HD: Yeah, that story is familiar to me.

GS: And they all survived, and they wanted to go back. They said they had a ridiculously good time when all was said and done!

HD: And it was Shackleton's niece, you said?

GS: His nephew. His nephew's a filmmaker, too.

HD: And they were up there on vacation, or?

GS: He lives up there, and he drives around and reads. He invited me in finally for a cup of coffee, and his motor home is a library. He drives around up there--he lives nearby--but he likes to drive around in this motor home, ...

HD: ... and find places to read??

GS: To look, and read. It's kind of cool. You just reminded me of that when you were asking about standing out there in the cold.

HD: Now, the painting you were working on today is on the opposite side of the street from the one that you did the day before Valentine's Day, because I had a look at your website ...

GS: ... oh yes, right!

HD: Now, the title of that one is simply the date. Have you come up with a title for the one that you were working on today?

GS: No, I don't know, it might be just the date, too. [laugh] I don't give much effort into naming them.

HD: So, this was oil on linen, is that right?

GS: Yeah.

HD: Now, and this will either sell, or it won't. If it doesn't sell say, over period of however many years, would you ever contemplate painting over it? Because you can do that with oil paints, right?

GS: Yeah. If I really don't like it. I don't know, the surface is bumpy when it dries, I probably won't. On occasion I will flip it around and paint on the other side, I guess.

HD: So you take the linen off of the framing and then ...

GS: ... if really don't like it, yeah.

HD: So, are you happy with this one? Just evaluating that from your own personal aesthetic, are you happy with the way in this one turned out?

GS: It's alright. I'll make a final decision later on.

HD: But it's done, right? You're not going to go back home and futz with it anymore?

GS: Not very much. Sometimes there will be like one little thing that bugs me, but I normally don't mess around with it very much all.

HD: From the fact that you were actually out there in the cold today, I assume that it's important to the way you approach your work that you actually be out in the physical setting? As opposed to--I mean, if it were me on a day like today, I would just take picture and go home where it's warm and work from the picture. [Ed. note: this is hypothetical; HD has never painted a picture in his life.]

GS: Yes, I know, you're tempted to do that, and sometimes I do that, but rarely. But to sit and paint from photographs is just, you know, it's not a real healthy way to spend your time--psychologically. You don't want to be a person who paints from photographs. It's altogether different from being right out there. There's a tradition, the French call it 'plein air' painting, it goes back hundreds of years. Now, with digital photography, you can come close to, closer to approximating the looks of something. You stand a better chance these days of painting from photographs. But for my money and a lot of other outdoor painters, there's no substitute for it, there's no way around it.

HD: So can you actually tell the difference when a painting has been done out there in the plain air, or is it more just about knowing for yourself that it was done that way?

GS: I can tell the difference. I think I can tell the difference. I like to think I can tell the difference. There's a certain--for one thing, it's not as good in a way, but I don't know.

HD: So, the style you paint in, on the one hand you're not trying to replicate the kind of detail that a photograph has ...

GS: ... no ...

HD: ... but it's not completely abstract, either. For example, the one that you did here on the street couple days ago, it includes the power lines.

GS: Yes.

HD: And you have the option, has a painter, to just not put to power lines in, but as a photographer you don't.

GS: I know!

HD: You'd have to photoshop them out or something. So I was curious, there is an element of just-painting-what's-there, on the other hand it's not a realistic style, it's not realism.

GS: No. Well, you're catching the accents of the light. There's an essence of it that is more real than realism. I find that super-detailed work is tedious to look at, and tedious to do. [With my style] you feel this immediacy, I don't know what the word is. You feel the energy. You look at a painting that's done outside, when it's windy, and someone is fighting the elements, and you're forced into a kind of shorthand.

HD: It seemed to me that the painting you were working on today and the one you did a couple days ago, there's a contrast between those and this other painting I found on your website of these boats. The painting of the boats, the lines are more precise, it seems like there's more of an effort to make it more precise.

GS: I don't know which painting you're talking about, but there are two large studio paintings of boats on the website, that are a very different kind of painting altogether.

HD: Yeah, in them, there's not that dynamic feeling of motion that you get--'motion' is not the right word--but energy, with the ones here on the street, where the cold in some sense kind of comes through.

GS: Yeah. There is a certain element that comes through--certainly the cold, or the wind, whatever it is. There is a word for it, I'm not thinking of it right now.

HD: So, you are familiar with this neighborhood? This is not the first time you've been on the street?

GS: Right.

HD: The next street over, Murray, is very similar. Have you ever painted Murray?

GS: I have painted Murray Street, too. I drove up and down them today, in fact, and I was comparing the two in my mind.

HD: And we won out today, Mulholland did!

GS: [laugh] Yeah, it's funny how Mulholland is--I don't know, it looks like a little higher priced real estate ...

HD: ... it's a little more 'precious'.

GS: A little more precious, yeah.

HD: Murray is more, I don't know, more primary colors, and bold and dashing.

GS: On Murray?

HD: Yeah, the houses, they're I think a little more vibrant than on Mulholland. Mulholland is more of a pastel-ey kind of doll-house kind of street than Murray is.

GS: Yeah, there's some pretty wild color schemes going on over there. It's a little rougher, a little more hippy over there.

HD: It's got little more character maybe.

GS: Yeah, it's probably more like my house over there. Although, I prefer Mulholland as a painter. But I don't know. There's more junk around the houses. [laugh]

HD: Well, one thing they don't have over there on Murray is anybody with a teeter totter, that's for sure.

GS: Oh, no teeter totters there?

HD: Not as far as I know. Maybe someone has built one since I was last over there to have a really good look.

GS: Are there toilets over there? I mean, in the yard! [laugh] [Ed. note: GS's comment is a reaction to the toilet-planter that sits in one of the flower beds in HD's backyard.]

HD: Not that I'm aware of, no. One of the young musicians who shared a teeter totter ride with me explained to me that there's a connection with Ernest Hemingway--not with toilets, but with urinals. Apparently he tore a urinal out of some bar that he used to frequent and brought it home, and his wife thenb made a planter out of it because she was embarrassed about there being a urinal in the yard.

GS: I have been around a lot of Hemingway places.

HD: Yeah?

GS: Yeah, Key West. And I stayed in a place up North where he wrote the Up North stories.

HD: And you actually stayed in the house?

GS: Yes, and two people at our wedding were at Ernest Hemingway's wedding. His first wedding.

HD: Wow.

GS: Yes. Of course, they were very young when they were at his wedding, and they were very old when they were at ours. [laugh] I kind of get sick of hearing about Ernest Hemingway, although I like his books and all. But when you get up there, pretty soon you start to tire of all the Hemingway stories. Likewise in Key West. A friend of mine grew up way with Hemingway--he was a boy and he wrote a book report on The Old Man and the Sea--Dink Bruce is the guy's name--and he asked Hemingway what the underlying meaning of it was.

HD: Of The Old Man and the Sea?

GS: Yes, because that was his assignment. And Hemingway said, There is no underlying meaning, it's what's you read is what you get! Don't go into it any deeper! So Dink turned the paper in and he got a D on it!

HD: [laugh] Oh, man!

GS: He came home with and said, Look at this! and so Hemingway says, I demand that you change the grade on this paper! I wrote the story and I know what I'm talking about!

HD: So, did the teacher change the grade?

GS: I think so.

HD: Well, that would makes sense. I mean, how could you not?

GS: That's my favorite Hemingway story.

HD: It's a pretty good story!

GS: It's true! Dink Bruce is the guy's name. His father was Hemingway's, sort of caretaker guy.

HD: So, did you grow up with this guy, Dink Bruce?

GS: No, I've known him in Key West for a number of years.

HD: So, where did you grow up? Around here?

GS: Ypsi, pretty much. I lived in Ann Arbor a lot, too. We just kind of moved back in forth. I went to Burns Park.

HD: Burns Park Elementary?

GS: Went to nursery school there. I was in nursery school. My brother, I think, was in kindergarten there.

HD: Alright, well, listen my hands are getting cold.

GS: Yeah, see I'm used to it!

HD: So thanks a lot for riding the teeter totter with me!