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.