The Odyssey of the Aspens – A Painting’s Journey to Life

It all started on Christmas Day 2019, when I received a greeting email from a blogger friend in Australia, whom I have never met in person (who shall remain anonymous here). At the end of the email she added this sentence:

Also, I have to tell you that I am a big fan of your paintings. There have been so many occasions when I was tempted to ask if you sold your art. Because if you do, I’d like to one day make a purchase — never mind the shipping costs.

I responded telling her that I didn’t sell paintings, but I occasionally would create custom ones for friends. What motif did she have in mind?

After she reviewed my online portfolio and pointed out what she liked, it struck me. In back of my studio there had been this “first draft” of a painting I called Aspens that I had been trying to make work for a couple of years that just wasn’t clicking, it wasn’t going anywhere. I thought it might work, so I took this photograph, with yardstick for scale, and sent it to her.

[click to enlarge any of the photographs in this post]

Her response was enthusiastically positive. But I took it with a grain of salt. What do you say when an artist shows you an unfinished first draft that he was planning on turning into a painting for you?

So I got to work. There is nothing that motivates like committing to making a painting for somebody. Now it has to move. Here is what it had turned into by January 16, 2020:

Here we are on January 25:

By end of February it was done:

This was just before the pandemic hit. In the months of March, April and May it cured. Oil paintings take months to dry properly. Then it needed varnishing, which takes another few weeks, at least, to dry sufficiently.

Of course, no painting is done until it is framed. So I took it to the frame shop, picked out a nice frame that I thought would be neutral. When it came back from the shop I put it up in the house for this portrait of Aspens with Artist.

But before shipping it, I thought I’d enjoy it for a little while in my home office, where I spend most of my days working during the pandemic:

But it was time for shipping. I went to U-Haul and got a mirror/art shipping box of the right size, and I called FedEx and UPS to get an idea what it would cost to ship this thing to Australia. That’s when the surprise started. The cheapest shipping I could find was about US $900, and it went up to US $1,600. Now, I consider my work valuable, but a thousand dollars just to ship a painting just didn’t seem like the right thing to do. While my friend had offered to pay for the shipping before, I am sure she had no idea what that would mean, and I would not ask somebody else to pay for something that was outside of the range I myself was willing to pay.

I started thinking about alternatives.

After all the costs of framing, I could take it back out of the frame (and repurpose the frame for another painting), take it off the stretch frame, and ship it in a roll. I was sure that would be cheaper. I first made sure that my friend in Australia had access to a frame shop that would be skilled enough to re-stretch a loose canvas. Also, I suggested to her that rather than paying for the shipment, she could spend the money on a good frame of her choice and get better value that way. Having confirmed that approach, I realized another hurdle: Australia was on the metric system, and there would be no way for a framer to find a 24 inch by 36 inch stretch frame. I would not be able to take the old one apart well enough for it to get reassembled. So I made a trip to Blick Art Supplies in San Diego, pretty much the only place anywhere I know where you can buy stretch frames, and bought two 36 inch sections and two 24 inch sections to ship in the tube with the painting.

Here is the painting, now without its frame, and the shipping tube, along with the stretch frame pieces. Time to take the painting apart.

Then came the next hurdle.

In my day, when I was a struggling young artist, I made my own stretch frames and stretched my own canvases. In the end, they looked like this, with the canvas stapled to the frame. This picture is a cheap store-bought frame. But that’s what I expected.

But no, that’s not what Aspens looked like in the back. I am buying high-end canvases now, and they are not stretched like we used to do it back in the day. This is what they look like now – not that I had paid much attention to it before:

So after committing to taking the painting apart and shipping it in a tube, I had no idea how to actually get it out of this kind of frame, and whether it would be possible to re-stretch it after that. I didn’t want to figure this out on Aspens itself and possibly ruin the painting. Better to experiment first. So I went to the supply store at Michaels where I get most of my canvas and bought the smallest canvas I could get using this stretching methodology. Here is is, ready with tools, to be taken apart:

It turned out it was not so bad. First you remove the corner staples, then there is a bead of caulk pushed down into the frame, probably by some machine in China, that both stretches the frame firmly and keeps it tight. Somebody surely made a fortune on that patent. Here is what it looked like after I took it apart:

I was relieved. It was not hard to do and the canvas had enough scrap around the edges sufficient for re-stretching later, as long as the framer knew his business. A word of caution here: Do not try this at home unless you know what it takes to stretch a painting. It’s a craft and it takes practice.

Now it was time to take apart the Aspens painting:

It went without a hitch. I took it apart, taped the new stretch bars together, rolled the canvas up with a large sheet of paper against the painting side, and it all fit into my tube snugly.

Here is the full tube, along with the empty old frame.

Now for shipping, I went to the trusty United States Postal Service, right around the time when the government apparently tried to sabotage the postal service to hinder the smooth execution of the federal election. So everything associated with shipping with USPS did not go so well. But you can’t beat the price. It cost me US $69.00 to ship the tube to Australia. I was excited when it left. I figured it would take a week or so.

By now you have probably figured out why I titled this post “The Odyssey.” The odyssey continued. Here is the tracking log of the tube trying to leave the country:

I truly don’t understand what the painting did lingering in San Diego for a week, before finally making it to Los Angeles, where it bounced around for another two weeks, before finally moving on to San Francisco to get on a plane to Australia. Once in Australia, it took some more time to arrive.

When my friend tried to take it to the frame shop she found out that, being a retail business, the pandemic lockdown had been extended to the end of October. She would not be able to take it in until then.

Well, today, almost a year after the Aspens project started, she send me this picture of herself with the painting it its new frame.

This was taken today in Australia. I have to say, the frame works beautifully with the painting, and the color scheme matches her décor better than I could ever have chosen remotely.

I am glad this project is done. Aspens is on the other side of the world, and it has a good home.

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