John Davis Held

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Meet painter John Davis Held who is known for his landscapes and especially skies.

John Davis Held will be the featured artist at the Ocean City Center for the Arts during the month of August. He and I met recently when he told about being raised in Manhattan in a family that had an appreciation for fine dining and fine art.

John's wide ranging academic career included studies in astrophysics and computer sciences. John lived in a ceremonial mud hut that he helped build while taking an anthropology course in African Hut Building and Sorcery at the California Institute of the Arts. From time to time John writes software for some side money. But art has always been his passion. He began with watercolors but much of his work has been painted with pastels.

John Davis Held:
"I took pastels, and something really hit with me. It was like the moment I did a pastel it was another twenty years before I touched another watercolor again. And then oil painting is something more and more of. Like for instance the show at the Art League of Ocean City is maybe half oils and half pastels. They'll see a lot of skies. They'll also see some beautiful still-lifes which are all done in oils. They'll see some figurative pieces too. They're not portraits. Um, they're not figure studies, but they're some interesting people that I have painted."

John has done commissioned portraits along with other projects but he has a reputation for elegant landscapes.

John Davis Held:
"Well, I am known for my skies. And skies are very difficult to paint. You can look at a lot of paintings in museums, and the skies are usually the worst part of the painting. And I find it fascinating. For myself, it is really a chance to work with light, and color, and a lot of glazing effects, atmospheric effects that I just don't get tired of."

"I used to use photographic references quite a bit. And I actually gave it up for a number of years. I found they just slowed me down. Because when I am working on a piece there is just some sort of magic that takes over. And this is what I am after. Suddenly I will find the light tone I am looking for in a piece. And I'll go: "Oh my goodness. This what needs working on." And at that point the piece just sort of works."

"Um, so certainly for my landscapes and my skies I rarely use references. With my still-lifes I'll take some photographic references and I'll work. But it is still the same process."

"Right now I am working on a piece that was going to be just ocean and sky. And, all of a sudden I could see these just gorgeous, like this mist on the water, and this land coming out! I showed it to my wife. I said: "Look at this!" And of course she saw none of those. And she said, "Well it's a start…"

"It sometimes takes a while to paint what I am seeing and get the paint there to, uh, to show what I have in mind; or what I am seeing. It's important to communicate this to the people who actually look at the art, as opposed to living in my own internal world entirely."

"I don't believe in waiting for inspiration. What I believe is: picking up a paint brush, and the inspiration is going to happen. I can just count on it. There's going to be a moment where all of a sudden my brush is moving as fast as I can get it to move. And then, I am stepping back, and it is almost a dance. You know I trust that process."

John Davis Held:
"Well, I am reminded of Mark Twain who once wrote a long letter to a friend. At the end he said: "I am sorry this letter is not shorter, but I did not have the time." And, I think that is really well put. It's not easy to do a really simple piece of work that just glows and has the right stuff."

"Another thing that artists do is they overwork their artwork. A lot of times they keep going past that point where they have sort of lost the vividness and the excitement and magic that was there. You really have to learn where to put the detail ant he perfect strokes, and where you can be loose and chaos. And, that combination is exciting. It works. So, yeah, I know what is good and I don't always hold to it. But generally speaking I know what I am looking for."

"It is incredible the beauty you can get out of something that is really simply done and well executed with the right light, that is better than anything you can do. That drama that comes from within, that spiritual sense, is going to come out in those cases. And it takes a quietness of spirit. For me it takes being really content. Um, I like being happily married. You know, my wife Kirsten is really important to me. And with her in my life, I can do the kind of peaceful beautiful work that I want to be doing."

"It's a very spiritual practice to work on a piece. I spend so many ours with a piece, reflecting on it, And, it is proof to me that we all have something inside of us that is really remarkable. It's really a spiritual practice. And I have had people, a couple of wives of husbands who were really very seriously, seriously ill, buy my work because the felt it was so peaceful. And this was the piece they wanted to hang on the wall, you know, by their husband's bed. They come back to me years later to thank me for this little gift."

"Actually I donated a piece to the Union Memorial Hospital which they put in this room for talking to families in tough situations. Um, it was to thank the doctors who did a marvelous job there with my Dad. Um, and you can't thank doctors and nurses enough. They have tough work. And so, to me it all works together."

"I just have to say that it is a real treat to stand in front of, you know, a panel, and work on a work of art and show it to the world and have people love it and find spots for it in their lives. And I think most artists aren't really in it for the money. And you shouldn't be as much as the fact that you are doing something that nobody else can do. I mean there are other tremendously great artists. But if you are really hitting your stride as an artist nobody is doing it like your own art."

John's work can be seen at the Peninsula Gallery in Lewes, Delaware and the Troika Gallery in Easton, Maryland. But why not go to the Ocean City Center For The Arts on 94th Street in Ocean City while his work is on display this August? A free opening reception will be August 5th from 5-7pm. Meet John other featured artists in person, and enjoy hors d'oeuvres and refreshments.

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