The Earl Story


Earl 24x30 oil on canvas Price: $5,000.

On November 11, 2013 I created this painting entitled: “Earl” as part of a series of paintings entitled “Hudson Warren Street” illustrating everyday life in Hudson, of which Earl certainly was a part. Described as Hudson New York’s “Outsider Artist” Earl Swanigan is often seen transporting his latest creations on a furniture dolly. As an artist, I felt my visual portrayal of life in the city would not be complete without him.

The use of one of his paintings in this work, rather than an appropriation of his work merely for the sake of profit, simply served as identification of him as the subject and detailed a stage in the career of the artist who created it.  Also, his artwork comprised only a small percentage of my painting. For these reasons, I felt it could be considered fair use.  I viewed it as sort of a tribute to the man that has managed to garner popularity and attention in the city of Hudson, his work being sought after by many visitors. About a year later at a joint art exhibit, I told Earl about the painting and showed him a picture of it on my cellphone. Rather than warn me not to display it or offer it for sale, he seemed amused by it, which I took as a positive response.

However, sadly, on October 26, 2015, a copyright infringement lawsuit was filed against me by Earl for the distribution of reproductions of this painting on greeting cards. Upon receiving his civil action summons, I immediately removed the work from the website offering greeting cards. I didn’t make a huge profit from reproductions of the work, only $8.50, which amount I offered to pay to Earl which I considered much more reasonable than the $200,000 he was seeking in damages. But he was unwilling to accept this, viewing it as an admission of guilt on my part. I never dreamed that my gesture of admiration could create such a controversy. From correspondence to the court, it became clear that Earl believed my motives to be an attempt to profit off of his celebrity status.

It is indeed unfortunate that such a situation has developed between two artists that work in and obviously share a love for the city of Hudson and I wish there were some way I could clear the air between us. Perhaps his reflection on these words may someday accomplish that.

What Is a Picture Worth?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I guess what that is supposed to mean is that a picture has the ability to communicate a message directly to the viewer so effectively that it would take a thousand words to communicate that same message. This, however, to me seems to present a problem for artists whose work has to be explained. If the purpose of a painting is to serve as a means of communication, to convey a message, and if it has to take words, another means of communication, a thousand words, to convey that message, hasn’t then that painting failed in its purpose as a medium of visual communication?

At times, due to language barriers, words fail to communicate ideas. It is very interesting, however, that we use pictures when the message is important enough yet needs to be conveyed in another language, even multiple languages. Traffic signs, for example, utilize picture symbols to instantly convey important information. Indeed, many symbols in ancient languages even began as pictures. The words actually looked like the things they were trying to describe.

Perhaps though, some artists, rather than trying to convey a clear message, are trying to raise questions, to make the viewer think. Perhaps their visual language is from a different time period or culture so that their symbols need translation in order for certain viewers to understand. Or maybe the message is so sophisticated and intellectually above the viewer that the artist needs to use words in order to explain in simpler terms to those of us that just don’t get it. I’m usually intimidated this way when viewing abstract art. I will never ask: “what is that?” in order not to appear dumb.

Maybe there is no message at all though. Maybe the artist dribbled or splashed colors together randomly until he achieved something he liked. Maybe the real thrill for him is to stand back and listen to how others interpret what he has done, to hear them attribute genius and greatness to it, to read complicated messages that he never intended to convey into it, to identify and be moved with what he has done to the point of paying large sums of money for it. To hear all the words that the buyer would say to justify to their friends their purchase. I guess then, in that case, that picture would be worth a thousand words. Whatever words anyone wanted to attribute to it.