Sunday, December 6, 2015

Gold Stars

I have been striving for gold stars all my life, or at least since I was in elementary school.  I know Mrs. Hutchings was only trying to improve my penmanship, she didn’t know she was launching me onto the path of seeking outside approval to validate everything I do.  Anyone that could copy her beautiful palmer method scripted poem off the board perfectly, and I mean perfectly, every period and comma intact, got a coveted gold star. Not just a little gummed one, I mean a 1 inch beautiful gold foil star placed on my paper and tacked to the bulletin board for all to see. My penmanship became my first real art award.  Of course, one gold star wasn’t enough. Then it became a competition of sorts, to get more gold stars than anyone else. It’s not that the goal of good legible handwriting was bad, it was the motivation. I didn’t improve because I had learned to value beautiful penmanship, I had become addicted to stars. I felt the thrill of separation, of somehow being superior to my peers. 

I continue to see this sort of "reward for excellence" system playing out in art societies. We cut ourselves off into little groups that seek to separate us by building barriers of distinction.  We give out “special” awards, create letters to string after our names to distinguish us from the rest of the “wannabes”.  For all those who are willing to work hard to assimilate to the aspirations and aesthetics of the group, they are rewarded by being accepted, but only at the cost of those that didn’t make the cut and are rejected.  You see, there is only a thrill if it is truly exclusive. 

I don’t want to participate in a system where my success is only achieved through someone else's failure, if being included means that others have to be excluded so that I can feel special and superior. That just feels so icky and only breeds contempt and further separation for those that don’t make the cut.  Adolf Hitler described how, in his youth, he wanted to become a professional artist, but his aspirations were ruined because he failed the entrance exam of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He was rejected twice by the institute.  He often frequented the artists' cafes in Munich in the unfulfilled hope that established artists might help him with his ambition to paint professionally. But they didn’t.  Now, I don’t mean to say that things might have gone different in the world if he’d been accepted, but you can’t help but wonder.

Of course I want all artists to improve and perfect their craft. I want them to learn to draw better, to compose more dynamically, to learn how to manipulate color better.  Not for the purpose of winning awards, but to become more discerning and develop the sensory skills required to communicate experiences where words fail. I want artists to learn to tap into what makes us human, what unites and sustains us, not what separates us. I want artists to create work that others will recognize as a shared experience with something greater than the sum of perfectly placed daubs of paint. There are countless perfectly painted award winning paintings out there that are dead because they were painted with the sole ambition of winning that distinction. They are boringly perfect and miss the whole point of art and life which is decidedly imperfect.

Ask yourself how much of what you create is motivated by the gold stars of outside approval. You can recognize it by the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you are working. That touch of anxiety that keeps interrupting the flow with that little nagging voice questioning whether it is good enough, whether anyone will appreciate it. The obsession of looking at the painting you posted on social media to see how many people have “liked” it. The envy you feel when you see someone else’s that got more “likes” than yours. It can just eat away at any hope of authenticity and frighten away any chance of discovery. New things need a safe environment in which to emerge, they don't like being judged.

I dream of a more supportive place for artists. One that stops dividing us as winners and losers.  A place where we can all work on improving our craft and be accepted for where we are on our individual journeys. A place where there are no gold stars.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Perception Shift

Perception Shift - 22 x 30 mixed media on mounted paper

The poet Rhina Espaillant says, “Writing is the process of listening internally - to understand what it is the poem wants to be.”  The process is the same for me, except that as a painter, I look more than I listen.
The first poem (Common Threads 2015) that grabbed my attention, and caused that familiar tug of recognition was “Prospective Immigrants Please Note” by Adrienne Rich. I know nothing of what it is to be an immigrant, but I do know that there are many life altering doorways of transformation that each of us experience in the course of a lifetime, some that are of our own choosing, and some that unexpectedly slam behind us.

It is at those times that our perception shifts, priorities change and beliefs are challenged. Rich alludes to this perception shift in her poem, “Things look at you doubly / and you must look back / and let them happen." In my work I contemplate these shifts but ask what, if anything endures, or what does it take in order to persevere?

For several years I have focused on two motifs that serve as my metaphors to explore these questions. One example from nature – the tree, another man made – the house. Both of these endure the hostility of the ever-changing environment. Both serve as shelter. Both are equipped with different methods of coping and both ultimately decay. They bear witness to times constant wearing away on any notion of permanence, while I watch.

While watching, I seek brief moments of clarity, little glimpses of grace, the times when my eyes are focused so intently on seeing what is behind that damn veil of unknowing that I finally begin to see the hazy outline of something. I strive to give form to that something. I am filled with hope when I see a shape that remains the same no matter where I stand, and sustained by the knowledge of its existence even when it is hidden. I watch bare tree limbs reach unashamed and unprotected into the winter sky. I feel the fearlessness, the unwavering faith in the potential buds they carry while blissfully ignorant of what storms lay ahead. Again the poem, “to maintain your attitudes / to hold your position / to die bravely.”

Like a poet, I seek to extract some sort of meaning from these observations and find a way to share the encounter through shapes and colors on a flat surface. As Stephen Dobyns has so articulately written in his book "Best Words, Best Order", “A work of art gives testimony as to what it is to be human."  It is an exchange between one human being and another in an attempt to communicate and offer some existential relief in the recognition of our shared experience. As a painter, I am a wordless poet.

There will be an opening reception, September 20th from 1-3 pm surrounding Mass Poetry's "Common Threads", at Highfield Hall in Falmouth, MA that will include various pieces of art by myself and 7 other artists that have studio space in the Old Schoolhouse Studios in Barnstable Village, MA.  There will be poetry readings at 2:30 by three of the poets represented in this years selection. The show will be on view Sept 10 - Oct 31.

Friday, July 31, 2015

A New Perspective

I am sitting here in the small kitchen of my cottage looking at this model, pondering what compelled me to construct it. I continue to gaze at it and then I begin to contemplate the light as it falls across the varied geometric planes. It is mesmerizing and I am filled with a sense of being centered and at peace.

I have stood outside and drawn the actual house as it stands in reality many times. I am usually swatting flies, battling wind, and seeking shade. Yet it was not until I built his model that I felt I truly began to “know” this house.  I now know the true actual shape of each plane because I have held each separate piece in my hand.

Even though perceptually these shapes are always changing depending on the angle of my gaze, there is something about the knowledge of each true shape that allows me to abstract more freely.

There is nothing immediate about my painting process and I am not interested with capturing some fleeting impression. I am more interested in searching for what endures in spite of change. Yet I value direct observation and working from life.  I can now sit and observe shadow patterns and explore shape relationships on the model that I could never see before, because they were always  obscured by trees and foliage.  I could never find a vantage point where I could observe the whole, I was always studying the parts.

If you happen to be on Cape Cod, my model will be at my show opening Saturday, August 1, reception 6-8 at the  Cove Gallery, Wellfleet, MA. The show will be up for a couple of weeks so please stop by.

                           "Being Still"  36 x 36, oil on panel

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


“I want to find my own style” is a comment I often hear from artists.  I had a student ask me the other day, how I developed my “style”. Of course, that got me to thinking about the whole concept.  I told her that “style” just comes about in a natural way; eventually you synthesize all the different approaches you have experimented with.  You filter through all the information you have absorbed and hold on to the parts that feel authentically “you”.

I have since thought of a pretty good analogy. We all remember learning to write in cursive. Some of us even remember learning the “Palmer Method”. How many of us have handwriting that really resembles that anymore? For a while, if you were anything like me, you experimented with what you wanted your handwriting to “look” like. I tried writing with no slant, with a backward slant, lots of loops, no loops. I had a name that ended in “y” which provided endless variations. But somewhere along the way, I settled into my “style” of writing. It wasn’t some intentional occurrence, it just happened. Handwriting experts claim they can tell a lot about someone by the way they write, and everyone’s style is unique. Painting is just another form of mark making, once you have achieved a certain level of confidence and ability, style will just happen all on it’s own.

Just paint, paint a lot.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Watching vs. Doing

Relinquish 30" x 30" mixed media

An artist friend that just watched my video commented that she wanted to see me paint more in it. I chuckled at that.  Everyone wants to see how the magic happens, but I’ve come to think that it can become a diversion to someone else’s process to spend too much time watching mine.  I mean, I paint the way I paint because of the myriad of experiences I’ve encountered. The fact that I studied etching and printmaking as an undergrad, my struggles with crossing from black and white to color, my stint as a computer programmer, my somewhat melancholic outlook on life, my struggle to understand the purpose of it all. All these things influence the way I place a mark on the canvas. I don’t drip a line just because I can; I drip it because something cries out in me that can only be expressed by that drip.  For someone else to see that and think, hey, that dripping is cool and then to drip just to drip would be to miss the point.

 I think I mentioned before the book “No More Secondhand Art” by Peter London.  One of my favorite quotes is “It is better to rise to the questions Monet did then to mimic his responses”.  I think that watching other artists paint seduces us into wanting to mimic their responses, and we are such good imitators! It is so much easier to try on and experiment with someone else’s innovations and discoveries that to face the blank canvas and find our own voice and mark that evokes it.

I believe that Art is about more than technique, and technique is about more than a toolbox of tricks. In order to discover who we are as unique individuals with something personal to say through our art, we have to find our own way of ordering marks and colors. That is why I feel my best service, as a teacher, is to help each artist put together a toolbox of skills that they can then use to go out and innovate with. They must discover all the marks that only they can make, all the colors that they can mix, first hand, by doing!

My process has developed over a lifetime of moving marks and paint around on the canvas.  It also doesn't follow the same approach every time. How can I demonstrate that? I try to remain open to discovery and chance each time I face the canvas, because I feel that is what life is about.  Here is an example of the above painting in process, and I think watching it evolve over the course of several weeks shows how open I am to letting the painting take it's own direction. Go out and paint, stop worrying about how to do it, stop watching how everyone else is doing it, take a tip from Nike and "Just do it"!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Taking Risks

Last week I was totally inspired by the start I had on this painting.  I was so connected, in the moment, and the marks seemed to just channel through me. Fortunately, I took some photos along the way, so I have a memory and record of it to share here, for now it has been lost through my attempts to complete it. But, I am not going to beat myself up over it. It had some legitimate compositional errors (the above is a cropped detail, the original is 30x36) that needed to be addressed and I wasn’t going to let those remain even if others were willing to overlook them. I also didn't want to just crop the piece down to the composition that worked. As artists, if we aren’t willing to take risks in our work, we will never move beyond what we already know. We will continue to create work that is familiar and comfortable to us.  I took a risk, it didn’t pan out.  But I reserve the right to take that risk and not stop working when it reaches someone else’s idea of finished.  This isn’t an original thought. I went to a talk given by Amy Silman at the ICA in Boston (  She remarked that she hated the question “When do you know a piece is finished”. She vehemently stated, “When I say it is!”  She said that she retains the right to totally destroy a piece in the process.  I concur. There were many discoveries I made while working on this piece that I will carry into future pieces, and I haven’t given up hope that this painting will become something respectable eventually.  I rarely abandon a painting, it may take years but sooner or later I will have recovered from the memory of what it once was, and I will discover what it can be now. Stayed tuned for the future incarnation!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

All About Seven

I am part of an exhibit currently at the Cape Museum of Art.  The reception is this Saturday evening, March 1, 2014.  This exhibit includes 7 groups of 7 women. Each group of women picked a topic relating to seven.   My group chose the seven faces of intention as referenced in Wayne Dyer's book "The Power of Intention".   We settled on this shortly after the tragic Boston marathon bombing, and felt the world could certainly benefit if it could only manifest these intentions.

The intention I chose was "Kindness".   I decided to post a blog entry here about my struggle to create this piece.  I hope you have a chance to go and see it in person, as the photo does not begin to do it justice. The exhibit will be up through March 31st.


My challenge in this endeavor was to express the concept of kindness without resorting to an illustration of someone or something we equate with kindness.  I wanted to evoke the impression of kindness without illustrating it.

I spent a long time just thinking about what kindness would look and feel like in abstract concepts.  What shape is kindness, what color, what type of marks.  At some point the image of an oval took shape in my mind. For me, an oval carried a certain type of presence.  The verticality, referenced the human body, the oval felt inviting and encompassing, compassionate.  So the search was on for an oval piece of wood. I enlisted the aid of a friend of mine that often helped out in estate sales. I told him to keep his eye open for on oval tabletop.  I still hadn’t figured out what sort of imagery or colors would evoke kindness.  I found an inexpensive veneer table at a thrift store for backup, in case my friend never uncovered anything better.  I was uninspired by the veneer table, but I still responded to the shape, it felt right.

After a couple months of pondering, I received a phone call from my friend saying that he had found a table, but that it was old and had several layers of paint on it and he asked me if I wanted him to sand it down a bit. I was thrilled. I asked him if he could take off the legs as well, and that if he wanted to sand it a bit that would be great, to “knock himself out”.  I was anticipating that I would need to gesso it to prep for the painting and the sanding would speed my process. 

What I didn’t anticipate was the innate beauty of the scarred tabletop revealed by the random sanding.  When my friend presented me with it, I gasped.  He has no artistic training, and probably thought I was crazy, to him it was just a worn table top desperately in need of a paint job. But to me it evoked a lifetime of service.

At that point, it was obvious to me that I needed to work with what had been revealed and not totally obfuscate it.  The whole process had involved kindness on the part of my friend.  He had searched, he had found, and he had prepared the table. It was his offering of kindness to me.

I began to slowly respond to the marking left by years of use.  There were circular rings left from sweating water glasses, and other circular marks I couldn’t identify.  There were deep cracks that refused to be healed by my layers of hot wax that I applied in light colored glazes.  I began to appreciate those cracks, and the delicacy of their mark. I opted to work with the colors that remained stubborn to the sanding attempts. Kindness requires that sort of stubbornness, that persistence.  I worked to unify the existing marks and introduced more circular elements and a rhythmic movement.  However, the real kindness in this piece is the complete conceptual package, all the pieces that brought it to life, including all the years it spent in service as a humble table.