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 (http://www.icaboston.org/exhibitions/exhibit/AmySillman/).  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.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

I Believe

The other day a student asked me whether I could come up with four or five questions that an artist could internally ask to help figure out where they want to go with their work. I wish I could think of an easy answer, but I fear it is a life long pursuit. That is both the good and bad news. If there were an end to the journey, then once it was reached what incentive would there be to press on? The bad news is that this means you are embarking on a journey of self-discovery that will more than likely be never ending, with the destination always feeling just beyond your reach. The more we know, the more we realize there is to know. At first it is easy because your focus is on perfecting the craft of your work. The real struggle only begins once you have achieved most of the technical hurdles.  That is the point when you must no longer draw from what is outside of you, but begin to draw from the well within you. This may feel daunting at first, but you need to just focus on the next step of your journey.

I believe there is more to art than just reproducing what something looks like. I say “just” but I realize that painting what something “looks” like is not an easy task, which is why so many artists continue to spend so much time trying to do just that.  Don’t misunderstand me, I am not discounting the need to perfect craft, I just don’t think that is the final destination. Once craft is perfected we may find ourselves thinking “now what?”  If perfecting craft is your present goal along this journey and it brings you satisfaction, then continue on. When the goal of perfecting craft has been achieved, you may feel yourself questioning whether there is something more to discover.

This does not have to be some sort of deep trip into psycho self-analysis.  But, it is the realization that all art is a form of communication. There is room for all levels of communication. It depends on what you are trying to communicate and who you want to be in conversation with. I think that music is a good analogy. Musicians must hit the right notes, but great musicians do more than hit the right notes, they impart something of themselves in the performance. There is more than the accuracy of their craft. There is something that can’t be described. That “something” is fleeting in a musical performance, as painters, we seek to give that “something” permanence in paint. Kandinsky did his best to explain this phenomenon.  He felt that a work of art is a physical object that springs from the inner being of the artist, but it is also the trigger point that begins a reverse process back into the inner being of the viewer. So the physical work of art becomes the bridge to an inner experience that was deeply felt by the artist.  If there is no initial force that was deeply felt within the artist, the work may be visually pleasing and adept, but lack that emotional bridge and connection. This connection is similar to the one that makes us weep when we hear a musician perform a piece with all his being.  We all have been moved my real art. But how do we create it?

Whatever your subject matter is, your painting should strive to be your intimate reaction to something. If what you see is all I get as a viewer, then art has lot some of its purpose and power.  I believe that the artist is more than a cook that knows how to put the ingredients together to make a tasty meal. As an artist, you must find the secret ingredient that only you possess.  You must somehow transform the materials into something that is more than the summation of its parts. As I often say, depending on your religious persuasion, you are either searching for magic or the hand of God in your work!

So back to my students question; if the answer lies within you, then that is where you must look for clues. We are very good at hiding from ourselves. A good idea is to keep a small journal where you can write down notes.  Perhaps begin a list of words that resonate with you, or sometimes one will jump out when you are reading. Write it down. Start to figure out what really interests or puzzles you. Do you like things organized or chaotic? What type of things do you collect? What makes your happy, what makes you angry?  Is there something that currently perplexes you? What is your personality, for better for worse? Make a list of adjectives that describe you, list your preferences and your dislikes. Watch for things that trigger you during the day for good or bad and write them down. What do you want to say?  If tomorrow was your last day on earth, and your next painting was all that was left behind to communicate to the future, what message would you want to send? Would you yell it or whisper it?

These are just possible jumping off points to begin a series. A series becomes the next step on your journey to discovering meaningful work. A series may go 4-6 paintings and then be exhausted, but lead you in a new direction. Or, a series may take 100 paintings to work through.  The important thing is that you start thinking about your work as being more that the depiction of something, it is something new and separate that has been created by you, through you, because of YOU.  Begin to paint what only you can paint!