Saturday, November 14, 2020

 Be a Sponge

    All English speaking writers and poets start with the same alphabet and the multitude of words created by those 26 letters. From that same pool of words, some writers will draw on their experience of the world and create epic descriptive novels and others will knit together three sparse lines into a haiku that I might suggest holds as much content as the novel. The former supplies us with more specifics and details, the latter requires the reader to contribute more to the story. Neither literary form is more valid than the other, and these are just two examples of the myriad of configurations the written word can take. All are different methods of expression that are born from the same vocabulary. 

    We can continue that analogy into every art form. In music, as another example, we have the same eight notes of the scale (12 including accidentals). That’s it. Yet musicians can put those eight notes together in so many different ways that we have the complexity of classical music with all its inherent mathematical sequences and equal in complexity, jazz, a style that strips away some of that structure to draw attention to the spaces in-between. Again, there are so many other “styles” of music but each draws from the same source of tones.

    So is it any wonder that in the visual arts we have the same phenomenon? There are so many options from material choices to color that the permutations and combinations are quite endless. There isn't only one way to paint. Attempting to put yourself in a stylistic box might be helpful for a while, to understand that boxes mode of working. A classical traditional painter has their own set of “rules” on how to apply paint to the canvas in order to create a painting that looks like a classical traditional painting. But the same rules would probably hinder an impressionistic or abstract painter. The first step in your artistic journey is to figure out what your personal aesthetic is. We seem to realize it’s ok to have a preference to the type of music we listen to or the literature we read, or even the wine we drink. But we often think we have to fit into someone else’s idea of what our art should look like.

    As I mentioned, there are some inalterable “truths” in every art form. A certain string of letters will always spell the same word. A specific sequence of notes will sound the same melody. Blue mixed with yellow will always create some sort of green. Figuring out the difference between these apparently inalterable truths and those that are up to bending though our artistic filter of experience is where the Art begins. You do not have to “understand” or “get” every form of artistic expression out there. That takes time and exposure and the willingness to let new ideas in. Keep an open mind to all you encounter as it may surprise you where this journey will take you if you stay receptive. Be a sponge, soak up everything you see and feel and then wring it out on the canvas in whatever way feels authentic to you.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Bring on the Gold

"Treeness"  oil and cold wax on panel 7.5" x 8"                             Mary L. Moquin © 2019

Bring on the Gold

A very proficient artist posted a painting on Instagram. She lamented that she had hit a wall and just didn’t feel enthused anymore. She often painted very proficient pet portraits and super realistic still life’s. They are masterfully done. She didn’t know what direction to go and was tired of what she was doing. It happens. We spend so much time figuring out “how” to paint. We become absorbed with understanding all the technical details. We spend years mastering drawing, and then the idiosyncrasies of our chosen medium.  But at some point, if you persevere and cover enough miles of canvas, you will figure out all those technique issues. You will have mastered the materials. But then what? 

I asked her this question: if she knew that the next painting would be her last painting, what would she paint? What would she want to say as her final expression of what this life has been for her? I guarantee it wouldn’t be a portrait of her neighbor’s dog or another exquisitely rendered lemon. She agreed wholeheartedly and thanked me for making her think. I look forward to her next post.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with perfecting craft. It is imperative, poor craft will hinder expression because it can be a distraction to the viewer. Depending on how much painting you do in your life, you may never tire of striving to complete the perfect replica of the subject before you. If that is how you feel, this post isn’t for you, just keep on following your bliss. But, if you have reached a point where you no longer feel elated when you complete that perfectly executed copy of what is in front of you, then it’s time to re-evaluate what and why you are painting. Because the way to find meaning in your work, is to stop painting pictures of what things look like, and to start painting what things are. 

To do this takes a little meditation and soul searching. Subject matter, the “what’ you are painting, can often serve as a metaphor for exploring something you have witnessed in your time on the planet. How can the marks you make, the colors you choose and the orchestration of all those details reveal something about the subject matter beyond what is immediately visible? What can you show me that I don’t already know? If what you see is all I get, then art has lost its power to communicate beyond the surface of appearance. So dig deeper. Experiment by choosing an adjective for your subject like silence, or frustration, stillness or transition. Hold that adjective in your consciousness when working. How does that influence the choices you make? 

Tell me something I don’t already know, or remind me of something I’ve long forgotten. Show me something I haven’t already seen, but somehow I recognize. Bring all those finely honed skills with you, but let your spirit and intuition guide you. Trust that a little imperfection now and then might actually communicate more to me than a slick stroke. The choices you make don’t always have to be in the service of rendering what you see. Your marks can make invisible feelings visible. As artists, we are alchemists, bring on the gold!

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Feeling a fraud

Feeling a fraud

Who am I trying to kid? Why do I think I can paint? There are so many people out there on YouTube that are obviously better than I am, so why do I bother? Maybe I should just retire, hang it up and watch TV or clean the house? 

That was the way I felt yesterday after a totally frustrating unproductive day in the studio. You may be surprised to hear me talk like this, but I thought you might like to know that I too feel this way sometimes. We don’t usually post these sort of things in our blogs and social media posts. We want to show how awesome our attempts our, why our work is worth looking at.

Ok, don’t start to worry about me. I went to bed, pushed the failed painting out of my head and got a good nights sleep. When I woke I, I just shook my head and said, “Silly girl, get back to work! So you had a bad day, so what, just get back in the studio and work through it!” 

But damn, sometimes I just want it to be easier. I feel like after all the years I have devoted to the craft, it should just roll off the paint brush perfectly, and sometimes it does. But in truth, I have grown the most from the challenging paintings. The ones that push me and refuse to let me become complacent. The ideas that force me to break out of my patterns and take risks.

I know that something new is trying to materialize and if I keep on doubting the process it will remain elusive. Sure I can just give up, retreat to something more familiar, or I can take a minute to regroup here and get back to work.
Early on in the struggle, before it took a nosedive, but I reserve the right to push a painting to the point of ruination! 

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Sometimes we have to just trust the muse

For some reason I find myself wanting to paint a series of self portraits. And then, there are also these images I took of my 92 year old mother with her dog Princess (who is anything but) that I am excited about beginning. And, why am I obsessed with this series of still life paintings I recently completed that are full of complexity and detail? What exactly is this current diversion all about? 

Those that have known me and my work are asking me where my houses and forests are? Have I left that subject matter behind? What is happening with my style, have I abandoned the more abstract tangles of trees and the geometry of architecture? I wish I knew the answers. And then my own fears pipe in, who the heck is ever going to buy a painting of me staring at them? For what purpose am I creating this body of work? Shouldn't I stop exploring and get back to work and create some inventory people expect for my galleries next season! I need to pay the rent after all!

Well, after worrying my brain and finding no obvious answers. I have decided to stop trying to figure it out. Because it is like anything in life, sometimes you just have to trust where the current is taking you and stop asking “why” or “when will we get there?” Have you ever had a friend try to surprise you by doing something or taking you somewhere and you keep badgering them with questions and they reply, “Just wait, you’ll see”. And when you finally get there you are all happy and say “wow, thanks, I never expected this!”

I guess I have come to a point in life/art where I am trying to trust the process. I can't waste time worrying about where this is all leading because I am just delaying things by dragging my feet along the way asking why. For some reason my dear muse has decided to take me on this adventure because she knows I am up for the challenge, I just have to keep showing up and doing the work and in the end I will understand why she led me there.

I hope all of you can try and trust the process more this year, we only have so many breaths and so many brushstrokes allotted to us. Paint what matters to you now.

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