Milo Redwood: Painter, philosopher

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Occasionally, a door opens in the Tyler Street wall of the Palace Hotel in downtown Port Townsend, and a sign appears: “Open Studio.”

Inside is Milo Redwood in his tiny, neat, one-room apartment, furnished with one chair, one stool, a rotary phone, a desk and a daybed, pictures filling the walls, and lots of books, including the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary in a chest-high stack.

"It weighs 155 pounds," Redwood said. "I'm a word guy. I adore them as much as I do images."

Redwood, 54, was born in Coos Bay, Oregon, and moved around a lot as a kid; his father was a Lutheran pastor. He went to George Mason University, but dropped out in his third year. "I wanted to learn what I wanted to learn. And I didn't see how a degree would ever serve me," he said. "But I did sit in a yellow cottage in Virginia for five years, studying what I wanted." Back then, he was into American authors, the Transcendentalists – Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman. "I read everything I could find from Kerouac," he said. "I love deep study, so school wasn't the right setting."

"The Greeks – those Beauties – I can read over and over and over," he said, and "Taoism changed my life. It was like detoxing Christianity." He used to carry Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching in his shirt pocket. "After a divorce, I was just broken," and his mom died in a crash that same year. "I would just wander the C&O towpath [a trail along the Potomac River] reading Lao Tzu, and that's how I got myself back."

He got to the Greeks by way of Friedrich Nietzsche. "He'd throw a line out, like 'Without music, life would be a mistake,' or 'We have art so we don't die of the truth.'"

Explaining the latter, Redwood said, "If we just looked at how cold the universe is, how nothing matters ... the physical reality, we'd just die."

He rarely watches movies. "Movies let me down too much!" He laughed. "I like real life, it turns out. I prefer that over films." He laughed again. He laughs a lot.

He's currently reading a lot of ancient Greeks, and a few Romans. "I've never read a Greek I didn't like," he said. "To go pre-Christian is a breath of fresh air.... Once the notion of original sin got into the Western mind ... that was just a really bad move."

EXPERIMENTS

In pursuit of his arts, he does experiments. He studied a little neurobiology, and looks at his own behavior scientifically.

In 2004, he did a "drinking experiment. Drink, type, drink, type. Pass out. Wake up. There was paper all over the floor." Then he read what he'd written. "And some of those were just plain good." Each day felt like dying and being reborn, which "was utterly addictive," he said. But it was "dangerous," and he realized it wasn't going to work out. "I was basically doing trances with beer."

He didn't swear off alcohol entirely, though he's on a "40-day no drink" right now. "I don't drink to pass out anymore."

Alcohol and painting don't mix at all, he said. He tried to drink and paint once, and it didn't work.

"How I really came to painting was, first, I fashioned myself as a poet," he said. "I've been scribbling since I was 12," and "had about 20 poems published by different presses." He sent poems to 200-plus journals, and on average, "one in nine picked me up." He kept his rejection slips. They fill a suitcase.

In May 2010, he began an experiment to see how music would influence his painting. "I got intrigued by music and what it did to my choices of color and form." He did a series of 1,000 paintings on illustration board, each 12 by 12 inches, and kept track of what he listened to as he did each one, "trying to find the one [kind of music] that unlocks." He doesn't start with a subject in mind.

"I never know what I'm making," he said. "The moment I try, disaster [results]. Sitting down with an idea just never works for me. It has to come from the inside out.... When I do think I have to do a whatever, it's terrible. I have to paint over it."

He calls the 12-by-12s his "trance paintings," "small ones" or "little guys," and keeps them stacked on a bookshelf. He didn't realize they're the same size as an album cover until someone pointed it out to him, about halfway through the 1,000, he said.

His experiment taught him "how music affected me, but in the end silence got to the ones I like. Some Dylan as well."

The musicians that consistently helped his painting were Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Not Janis Joplin. "She was too much. Overpowering. I couldn't paint to her." He did quite a few to the Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell and Bob Marley. He discovered that lyrics impeded larger works, but "in the small guys, lyrics are fine." No lyrics "allows me to go into flow, whatever that is."

For larger works, "jazz got to be important." Thelonious Monk, specifically his sessions with Miles Davis, inspired about 30 large paintings (24 by 30 inches). Now, he said, "North African music is it." Three CDs are "gold mines": "Putumayo Presents Acoustic Arabia," "Putumayo Presents Sahara Lounge" and "Moroccan Spirit." He said, "These put me into a trance that makes me want to throw paint on canvas."

Redwood has more than 150 large paintings stashed in a closet and in a storage space, and about 600 small ones.

BORED WITH $100s

Redwood occasionally and spontaneously has an open studio, and they can be profitable.

Last year, "A guy with three women came in and said, 'We're going to lunch, and I'm going to come back and buy some art.'" He did come back, and bought 14 large paintings. The buyer, who only gave his first name, said he was buying them for a gallery in Seattle. "I got bored with him counting out $100 bills," Redwood said. "I'd be stupid to say it wasn't pleasing, but ultimately it was a little off-putting ... because I didn't know him, and he came from nowhere."

That stranger wasn't the only collector to snap up Redwood's work. About two years ago, a local friend's wealthy brother-in-law stopped by to look at his art. "Way rich. I mean, Bentley rich," Redwood said.

"He looks at some of the little guys. He goes in the closet and says, 'What would you do if someone wants to buy everything?'"

He was on an airplane tour with his son. "The next morning, he came back and said he wanted to buy 100 smalls now. And I said, 'No.' And his eyebrow went – rrr!" Redwood made a creaking noise and used his fingers to raise and twist one eyebrow to indicate the man's surprised reaction. "Basically, as I saw it, I didn't want them to go into a closet. I want them to go out in the world." The man had to persuade Redwood to sell to him.

"[The buyer] said, 'Come on. Sell me 30.'" Which Redwood did. They laid out 40 of the 1,000 smalls, and Redwood picked out 10 that he didn't want to part with.

"The problem was that we didn't sit down. The paintings, and for that matter the buyers, are much more interesting than the money."

He doesn't have many open studios, put off by "the money-art thing." He doesn't demonize money; he said it's one of mankind's greatest inventions, as he has no interest in bartering. "But the accumulation of money, I just can't seem to care about it. It seems like an Achilles’ heel. I can't fake myself into caring about it."

A current focus of his is the difference between actual wealth and symbolic wealth. He talks to people to find out what they think. "I'll ask them, 'When have you felt most well?' and then tell them that the word wellness shares the same root as wealth.'"

In response, "Typically, people say it was a road trip, or friends, or their home base ... music, maybe art," he said. Most people tell him they felt the most "actual wealth" when they were "kind of running a little thin."

Love, art, money and philosophy are his interests. "These are topics that are not going away."

What's in Redwood's future?

"Painting, singing, scribbling, studying."

See miloredwood.com.

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