Saturday, June 26, 2010


Two nights ago, Chosa (our 3-1/2-year-old vizsla, shown at left) woke us up at 1 a.m. barking at the neighboring coyotes. What I also woke up to was an acute pain on the left side of my head, not in any of the usual places but rather in an upper quadrant. It did not go away. I had never, ever felt anything like it before and, in the dark of the night, it frightened me thoroughly.

I felt sick the next morning, though the pain was gone (replaced by a more normal, if painful, sinus headache). Still shaken and scared, I went to our local clinic. The conclusion with our excellent PA there was to hope it was an unusual combination of sinus and neck tension, or some kind of cluster headache. I left with the caution, if the pain recurs, to get me to a hospital for a CAT scan.

Later in the day, I went to Bev, our local therapeutic masseuse and homeopathic expert, for some muscle relaxation and to consult her wisdom. I happened to mention to her that I've begun using some new substances in the studio in the last few months -- the cold wax and the alkyd gel. She felt, at the end of my treatment, that the acute pain in the unusual location was probably a result breathing the fumes of my mixtures in the studio.

This resonates. I've noticed the fumes and wrinkled my nose, but after years of painting without problem, it frankly never occurred to me that this could be a source of illness. I have high clerestory windows that are cracked year-round, and I leave the door or another window open as weather permits. But recently, in the intensity of my new work, I have not only spent more time in the studio, but also have been working closer to my palette, and leaning over a table rather than standing before an easel. Combine that with the full day that I put in on Wednesday, on a hot windy day when I couldn't open the window because the winds were too strong, and it all makes sense.

While I'm relieved to have determined the most likely cause of the episode in the night, there is also a lesson here that makes painting even less of a lightweight hobby and confirms it as a serious enterprise that, in fact, can harm. An obvious step is to analyze and improve the ventilation in the studio, and to review the arrangement of my work area, to get fumes as far away from my face as possible. I am fortunate to have had a wake-up call that was not too serious. It has been a sobering few days.

Monday, June 21, 2010

operating blind

With all good intentions of following my self-directive on how to create the next iteration of panels, I've spent the past three days -- well, just painting. The only extent to which I am honoring my concept of portraying the landscape here is to create panels in roughly three groups, referencing skies, cliffs, and fields. The only differentiation among the groups at this point, as far as I am aware, is color. Speaking very broadly, sky panels are in the blue family, cliffs in the red family, fields in the green family. But my marks, and any shifts in value, edge, or hue, are purely the result of flying blind. I still don't know what I'm doing, although I like the outcome.

My notes from my travels last week are not helpful, because all they do is predetermine what I try to paint. It is not working. For example, I had an inspiration while driving through a canyon to create a red 12x12 with blobs of green along the bottom to give the feel of how the tall cottonwoods are dwarfed by the canyon walls. As soon as I began to work this onto the panel, I lost the freedom to follow the paint, because I was tied to the design. How can I find a middle ground, and paint abstractly but still capture something like that feeling of trees and rock that I so love? How can I reference and not represent?

I just remembered a wonderful book about abstraction that I read a few years ago. Mondrian 1892-1914: The path to abstraction focuses on the process the artist went through in shifting from traditional landscapes to his famous grid paintings. There was an example (one among several) of a tree painted representationally, and then made abstract over a series of other examples. At the time, I read the book out of interest unrelated to my own processes. I think it is time for a second reading.

It is one thing to lay out paint on the palette and just begin to play. But if I have an intention, if I have something I want to express, I'm not sure how to get there by just playing. I suppose that in operating intuitively, the intention will be expressed one way or another. Perhaps that is a method: to conceive the intention mentally and emotionally, but then let it go when I paint. Is it a matter of being too self-conscious? Is it a question of control? I do know one thing: The only way to find the answers that I seek is to keep painting.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


I've had most of a week away from the easel, partly because I've been away from home and partly because I've been assembling and bolting panels. It feels good to have seven completed pieces. Not only am I in good shape for the show (now just two weeks away), but I also now have been through this whole process, from ordering Gessobord at decent prices, to figuring how how to attach eyelets and hanging wire, and how to sign the finished work.

Looking back at the creation of this first set of panels and montages, I realize that I abstracted out beyond where I really want to go, in the long run. But I think that I had to, to break out of my old habits and get away from my representation traps. To borrow a distinction from Rebecca Crowell, I don't want to represent, but I do want to reference, and I did very little of that in this first batch.

Contemplating this first set of finished pieces, they do not say what I now envision. But then, I didn't envision that, a month ago. And I like them, and they represent an important phase, maybe a transition phase (but aren't all phases transitions?), and a worthy one. While creating these panels, I used my imagination and intuition almost exclusively. Color and some design came from reality, but not much. I am persuaded, from all this work, that especially intuition has a vital role to play in this kind of painting, yet I want my daily interaction with the landscape around me to play an important role also.

In Rebecca's book Old walls and lost paths, she includes photos of Catalonia that she took, and some paintings of hers that she can relate to the photos. It is not that she painted from any photo, but rather that after creating a painting, she realized the relationship between the two. This description of hers has stayed with me, as a glimpse of the way that one's surroundings can influence directly one's work. In my travels of the past week, for example, as I viewed a mountain valley or a red rock cliff, I could see in my mind's eye a painting that might come from that. Not a rendition of the scene, but an impression of color, of shape, of space. (In contract to my former practice, I did not take any photos.) I have three such ideas in my head and in my sketchbook, basic plans that will morph as I paint, but still three little visions that (at least to me) will say valley, cliff, mountain. Someday this may become intuitive, too -- it is largely a matter of seeing differently, mindfully. For the moment, it has to be conscious. The adventure continues!

The image above is of a 12"x18" piece, as yet unnamed, for the show.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

avoiding traps

The past few days in the studio have been interesting. I keep meaning to bolt together the montages that are complete -- I need to clear them out and regain the wall space, for one thing -- but I am always pulled back into painting. In doing so, I am encountering some old traps that in times past have derailed my enthusiasm, self-confidence, and general forward progress. I am hoping that, by recognizing them and writing about them, I can avoid getting mired down this time.

The central issue on my mind today is painting for "production" -- that is, focusing on creating pieces for sale -- versus painting for its own sake. The latter produces pieces that resound with me, in which I have confidence and even pride, and which seem to speak with my voice. The former is one of the traps: In painting for "production", I force design and lose the flow. For example, there was one arrangement/montage in the finished batch with which I was not entirely happy. Rather than simply dismantle it and put the panels back into "stock", I tried to fiddle around with it. I removed one panel of the three. The two remaining were good, but not quite. So I took one of them and tweaked it, trying to add paint and texture to make it "fit". It still doesn't work. This morning I was thinking, I'll go out and tweak that panel some more, to see if it will fit. But there is the trap. For some reason, this situation, of trying to force a piece into a preconceived slot, nearly always fails.

Part of the power that I am finding in this mode of painting (cold wax, abstracts, coming together in arrangements) resides in creating each individual piece to its own completeness, and letting the groups meet up later. That separate completion of each panel is for some reason crucial to the process. At least for now, trying to force and niggle and edit panels so that they "fit" together, just doesn't work. Maybe at a later time it will, but for now, I have to stay away from that. Lesson learned, and trap avoided, I hope!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

getting to abstract

Our high desert valley has sprung into summer, and with our perennial river and a wet winter behind us, green is everywhere. Grasses grow an inch a day, the chamisa has new young growth, the aspen are shimmering. Alfalfa fields are filling in, the centuries-old cottonwood are shedding their fluffy seeds, new saltbush pop up daily. In the studio this morning, I naturally reached for green tones, filling my palette with blues, golds, yellows of tube paint, seeking interesting combinations. We only have a few months to enjoy this until the desert again dominates.

But then, I paused. What was I doing? I did not want to draw bushes or leaves. Could I consult some inner place where "green growth" resides, and then paint that place? How could I find a nonverbal line of communication between that inner sense and the paint on my knife?

Not knowing what to do, I started messing with the paints. Wonderful greens emerged, from grayish sage to vibrant alfalfa, and soon the whole palette was filled with little piles of hues. I pulled out a panel that I had covered with a base layer of sandstone rust, and rolled it with patches of a basic sap green. For the next chunk of time, I added other shades of green here and there, blended and separated different areas, played with netting and saran on top and the patterns they left when pulled off, made marks with an oil stick, scraped down, added back. I got lost in the materials, the plasticity of the paint, the subtleties of the hues. I forgot all about the place where I started and the "what to do?" question. I just played, balanced tones and marks and textures, made things more complex and then simplified. On one level, I didn't have a clue about what I was doing. On another level, I knew exactly what I was doing: exploring that sage green against that piney green, smoothing over that gridded area so that it flowed into the wavy pattern next to it.

When I sensed that I'd done enough (whatever that was), I quit, cleaned up, and went in to lunch. I don't know if this experience will repeat itself or not, but I sure had fun.

Friday, June 4, 2010


Having arranged (but not yet bolted together) all the panels that currently are finished, I am back into painting mode -- and happier for it, I must admit. The task of teaming up panels and arranging them in the way they ask to be arranged is fascinating and fun, but doesn't probe as deeply into my inner thoughts and feelings as does the creation of individual panels.

This morning I had the pleasure of a Feldenkrais class with Carol, a friend of a friend who comes down from Salt Lake occasionally. This is my fourth class with her, and we focused on therapy for my hands, which can be almost crippled at times from hours of gripping palette knives and rags, and cello fingerboard and bow, without proper energy or alignment. One of the many things I learned (or, I should say, re-learned, since I already knew this at some level) is to ground my body as I move and work. This means literally to feel my feet on the floor and carry that connection all the way up my body, and back down again. The energy that comes from this simple awareness is amazing. When I sense that energy move up my spine and then out through my hands and fingers, the action I am taking, whether at the easel or the music stand, just flows.

Part of the reason that the Feldenkrais method speaks so strongly to me is due to the background that I have in modern dance. My memory of expressing myself through dance has lain dormant for years, but when Carol teaches me something, I frequently find that I already know it, usually on an intuitive level. Thus practicing Feldenkrais also puts me in touch with that movement-based, expressive history that I have, and the lesson becomes much more than just dealing with aching hands, for example.

I sense that the Feldenkrais work will lead to additional benefits as well. In addition to freedom from pain and greater flexibility in hand and finger movement, the grounding that these movements give me and the contact with that intuitive past may also help me to delve more deeply and develop new levels of expression.

The 12"x18" piece pictured above, as yet untitled, is going into the show. It makes me think of all the biotic life that one finds both in the sea and in the sandstone.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I have, I think, successfully assembled 7 or 8 interesting groupings of panels. I played around with different combinations (as at left) until I couldn't see them freshly anymore. I took photos of what I had assembled. Then Bonnie, my friend and cello instructor, spent an hour with me suggesting new combinations and helping me see new possibilities. Tomorrow I will review all and decide, knowing that I have a decent number of pieces for the Gallery 24 show in July. If I get a few more pieces finished before then, that will be icing on the cake; it is just a relief to feel that I am ready for the show. It will take a couple of days to bolt the panels together, price and name them, and photograph them. But I have four weeks until the show opens, and I have never been so prepared so early before. Hurrah!

In addition to being excited about the pieces for the show, and wanting to create a few more, I am eager to move on to the next batch of works. I am not quite through with the palette and style of this group, but I also continually envision future series in other palettes and other styles. Now that these are assembled, they are so clearly a first effort -- or do artists always feel that way about work that is finished? But they look rough, in some ways, and I see things in them that I want to expand upon, as well as things that I'd like to avoid in future.

Also, this series was an experiment. I didn't know whether it would work for me. It so clearly did, and I feel so much at home in this way of working, now, that I look forward to being able to explore more deeply and build on what I have learned this past month (only a month?), without the pressure of an upcoming show. So, this blog will continue, perhaps in a more coherent and thoughtful vein, as I continue to work on board and in cold wax, abstractly.

I'll post photos of the final groupings when they are ready.