Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Late September has brought beautiful fall weather, with mild temperatures during the day but enough cold at night to set off intense foliage colors -- especially on the 10,000-foot mountaintops that surround our valley.  The aspen leaves are brilliant gold, the mountain mahogany are rusty red, the native grasses are golden tan, and the sky is that brilliant blue that is a specialty of the Colorado Plateau.  We have taken a couple of "leaf peeper" drives over the last week, and I think that the intensity of those visual experiences has carried over into the studio.  I find myself reaching for the yellow-to-burgundy spectrum with blue contrasts, such as in the 8"x8" shown at left, which I finished yesterday.

I cherish the richness of our autumn colors, the more so because the coming winter will bleach out all foliage, and the red cliffs and blue sky will stand vigil over a gray and dull countryside. The vitality of these months will be frozen into stillness, and daily life will be less invigorating.  A more contemplative time.  For now, each day unfolds with a freshness and a crispness that invoke apple cider and pumpkin pie.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I was one of four judges for a plein air competition (part of the Escalante Canyons Art Festival) today, and had the challenging but exhilarating job of evaluating other artists' work. The quartet worked well together, at a professional level, and I was proud to be part of the team. It was also an educational experience, since we had to verbalize the criteria we were using and then apply them. Put simply, we looked for basics (composition and rendition, as in use of color, value, brushwork, perspective, etc.) and also for a certain "plein air" quality, of freshness, I suppose, among other things.  At the end, we looked also for a more enigmatic quality, perhaps a uniqueness, a daring, a clear message. Something that made the work stand out beyond just good execution.  We worked hard, and it wasn't easy.  But we all felt rewarded by our efforts. In addition, for me, it was a good reminder that I need to apply some such criteria in evaluating my own work. Probably not perspective!  But certainly color, value, composition, brushwork, edges, etc., etc., etc.  This is one of those lists that lives in my head, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, but it would be useful to drag it out with more salience than I usually do, and use it to try to look at my pieces objectively.

In a conversation with one of the other judges, who had questions about my own work, I also was reminded of one of my basic touchstones: Paint from something real.  This goes back to the summer that I studied with David Dornan up in Helper, UT.  After a winter of "going abstract", I presented him my work at the beginning of my stay, and his immediate reaction was that the paintings lacked a groundedness, that they came out of my head and went nowhere.  Paint something real, he said, meaning that even if I paint in a nonrepresentational manner, I need to ground myself in reality.  For me, this is entirely true, though I acknowledge that it wouldn't necessarily be so for someone else.  This has become one of my mantras, and especially when I lose the thread, or the momentum, this is one of the tenets to which I return.  I don't know why I don't keep it in my head at a consistently conscious level.

What did I do that summer?  I painted bricks, or rather, I created paintings of bricks. Still life's of bricks. Abstracts of bricks.  Studies of light on bricks.  The bricks provided a reality, and I learned what it meant to "paint from something real."  A representational example from that summer is shown above.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


In the studio this morning for the first time in a couple of weeks, I had to wonder what had happened to the momentum of early August.  The easy answer is that it dissipated into the process of physical therapy for my wrist, which has been painful and distracting.  The more truthful answer is that I allowed myself the distraction of the wrist therapy, along with a variety of other distractions (like the kittens, at left).  So be it.

The more interesting question is how to regain that momentum.  I spent a couple of hours in the studio this morning, adding paint to some old pieces.  The process was familiar but I had a hard time regaining the mindset, as it were.  When I am working well, I have in the back of my mind a whole series of thoughts and concepts from which I can draw (no pun intended) as I move through the creative process.  The clearer the access to the mindset, the happier I am and the better I work.  This morning, there were cobwebs in my mind.

Fortunately, there are easy answers.  Keep showing up.  Read past journal posts to regain the mindset. Relax. Work. Play. Nurture the enthusiasm. Enjoy the journey.

Friday, September 10, 2010

ego and attachment

I had an eight-hour drive today, traveling south to visit a friend in Sedona, AZ.  As the miles rolled by, I found myself musing yet again about the idea of getting rid of words (in music) and images (in painting).  On an impulse, while stopping at the BLM Visitor Center at Big Water for a break from the road, I called my cellist friend/teacher, Bonnie, and asked her how she saw the idea of getting away from the verbal mind in music.  As I might have anticipated, had I thought about it, her response came from the perspective of the performer rather than the listener.  It made me realize that I have not been distinguishing between the two.

Bonnie's response to my question was to propose that one must let go of the ego in order to reach unity with music. I interpret this to mean, at least in part, a letting go of control in order that notes and phrases might flow unimpeded.  One must maintain a kind of passive mindfulness about one's playing, and certainly one must have skills to depend upon, but there is definitely a letting go involved. When I think back on the piano recital of a couple of weeks ago, this is also what I did, in a way, as a listener when I shut off the verbal side of my mind and just was present.  So perhaps it can work from both sides of the musical curtain, as it were.

As for painting, letting go of the ego is an idea I can understand easily from the painter's perspective.  Much has been said by many artists about letting the creative process flow unimpeded and about taking the ego out of the work.  I like the quote from Arkansas artist Warren Criswell:  "Creativity in general may require a certain disarmament of the ego."   A disarmament, a letting go, a standing back is to me a very helpful concept as I work in my studio.

From the viewer's perspective, however, I am not so clear about disinvolvement of the ego. Perhaps by taking out imagery (in abstraction), one asks the viewer to suspend literal interpretation.  But that is not the same thing as suspending the ego, and abstraction in fact may demand more ego involvement of the viewer, in asking for nonliteral interpretation of the work.  Ego may be necessary to partake fully of visual art.  In abstract art, one asks the viewer to let go of expectations of imagery.  Perhaps, if anything more is to be asked, it is that prejudgment and closed-mindedness be suspended and that the viewer enter into the picture with the same spirit of inquisitiveness and adventure that the artist had when creating it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

nonverbal language

I attended a "practice" piano recital today, given by the relative of a local resident who is preparing to perform a concert required for her Master's degree in music.  She presented works by Mozart, Brahms, Bach, and Debussy in an informal atmosphere, with an audience of ten!  For those of us listening, it was a unique experience to be in such a small group and only twenty feet from the piano.  The circumstances gave me an opportunity to enter into the music at a level that is rarely possible in a "live" situation, when the venue is usually fairly intrusive and can play an active role in the event.

I was able to let go, at least for brief periods, and just listen.  I played a bit with consciously quieting the verbal side of my mind and listening without words.  It was surprisingly easy, leading me to think that it is perhaps mostly habit that has my mind rattling along in phrases and sentences while I'm doing something else.  Paul Davis once told me that he likes to have talk radio (such as NPR) playing in the background while he paints because it is almost as though the verbiage occupies and quiets down that verbal side of his mind, freeing the nonverbal side to create.

I realized in a new way that music does have a language, a non-verbal one. Or, at least, for me, western music does, perhaps because I "speak" it.  I understand the progressions, the relative keys, the chords, the conventions of composers such as those whose works I heard today.  I understand it in the sense that there is a logic to it, so that even unfamiliar pieces speak to me.  I had heard none of today's pieces before, yet I could follow the structures and even anticipate the flows of sound.  Non-western music communicates to me to the extent that it uses keys, sequences, dissonances, harmonies that also occur in the musical language that I know.  The resolution at the end of a complex passage is intensely satisfying.  It's kind of like speaking one Romance language and to some extent therefore understanding all of them, and understanding a branch language to the extent that it shares those Latin roots.

So . . . what about abstract painting?  What are the elements of its "language"?  Colors and how they interact.  Values and how they interact.  What a color "means" (blue is serenity, red is heat, at least in some cultures).  The tension of black against white, the softness of shades of gray.  More to ponder, here.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

a fresh look

I had taken three new pieces into the gallery to be hung for the Labor Day weekend, including the one at left, and had last seen them on the floor, standing against the wall.  Today they were hung in the center of the wall where my work resides, and in addition to being pleased that they were up, I was pleasantly struck by how they drew my eye. I also had the not unfamiliar, momentary sense that they were not "mine" but had come from somewhere else. This is in part because I do not remember exactly how they were constructed -- a friend asked me, for example, what color the base layer was in one of them, and I honestly couldn't say -- but also, I think, because in each of them I let go of control and allowed the piece to make its demands.  Of course, I chose how I responded to those demands, and so to some extent kept control, but I was not forcing a specific composition or message in any of the three.  At least, I had not started with a message in mind.

In other posts, I have ventured the idea of my paintings having meaning, and of asking myself what message I would want a given piece to have.  Here is a tension that is not unfamiliar in the painting world, though I am encountering it in a new way and with a new immediacy:  When to direct and control, and when to let go. Countless artists have discussed this, and I am grateful for the discourse and vocabulary that they have made available.  What I am finding now is that the question arises anew for each painter, and I have finally come face to face with it in my own work.