Friday, August 31, 2012

being present

A week in San Francisco has offered many art opportunities, and even though I haven’t touched brush to canvas, I feel quite connected to my work. There are many reasons for this. Meg and I visited three museums (SFMoMA, the Legion of Honor, and the DeYoung) and in each one I saw works that resonated with me. Two different art supply stores, FLAX and Arch, offered a richness of materials that opened up creative possibilities. I met Phyllis to talk art and stroll around a small art district in Berkeley.  I sketched with Meg every evening, and I worked on my artist statement (see post of August 20th).  All in all, I don’t feel that I have been that far away from my studio, and that is unusual for me when I travel. There has been active engagement with the artistic world every day, and I have actively “worked” on my own art in some way or another.

I’d like to make this a permanent change. I would love to carry my artist-self at the front of my awareness in my daily life.  For whatever reason, I haven’t done this so far.  In the past, being in my artist mind has distracted me, and I can’t live my life in a distracted state. But maybe there is an alternative. Maybe I can have my artistic consciousness, as it were, traveling alongside me, passive (not distracting) but alert. My art muse riding on my shoulder, looking out for opportunities even while my main awareness is cooking, cleaning, visiting, playing cello, studying Spanish.

As I think about this, I see additional advantages. I want to delve deeper into the details of the geography that I want to portray, and being more constantly aware through artistic eyes of my surroundings would certainly help. I want to find new methods and materials to express myself, and staying alert to such possibilities as I move through my days would undoubtedly feed the process. I want to find ways to express inner reactions and sensations in my work, and the only way this will happen is to become aware of them in the first place, and consider how to express them as they happen.

The image above, a Rauschenberg, fills an entire wall at SFMoMA with its structure and energy.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

marks again

I presented an updated version of the mark-making presentation from Wisconsin (see post of August 27, 2011) on the last day of the Telluride workshop. Two days before, Rebecca led us though a drawing-scribbling exercise that set a path in the direction of marks. Six of us at a time stood around a table, drawing implements at its center, with a stack of 4"x6" paper in front of each of us. In response to a rapid sequence of instructions ("Pick any implement and make a single mark." "Pick up any implement and draw what you do."), we each filled about twenty sheets. The pace was so rapid that at some point the left brain just gave up. In addition to loosening us up, in the end we each had a significant record of our individual mark-style.

The exercise provided me with some spontaneous marks that I really liked. Or, more accurately, I liked the fact that they came out of me unimpeded and were visually pleasing. (The image above is of one of my favorites.) As we returned to our painting stations, as it were, and to our now-dry panels from the day before, the emphasis was on drawing, and I practiced further and on a larger scale the types of gestures that I had made on the small pieces.

Rebecca had also brought to the workshop a copy of Expressive Drawing by Steven Aimone. The author approaches drawing as essentially line and mark, without worrying about representation. Short chapters present various aspects of drawing, but what I found most valuable were the exercises, which emphasize loose, gestural, and spontaneous drawing -- exactly my focus right now. I've ordered myself a copy of the book just for the inspiration it will provide for practice.

I'm in San Francisco visiting my sister-in-law, Meg, and today we revisited the alphabet work we did last year (see post of May 6, 2011). This time Meg's suggestion was to write  some text (a letter or a poem, for example) but to turn the letters into a series of gestural expressions that cover the surface without looking like letters. It was a stimulating, freeing, and amazingly difficult exercise, one that I plan to repeat.

So I feel well supplied with a variety of means to further develop the marks that I make, without resorting to representation, and bypassing as much as possible my controlling, analytical left brain.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

digging more deeply

One of the pleasures of working with Rebecca is the feedback that she very generously gives about one's work. Talking with her in Telluride was one of the highlights of the workshop for me.  In addition to remembering my Wisconsin insights about the Colorado Plateau from last year, she had creative ideas about how to move forward with them.  This included using a list of concepts such as I described in my last post, but using them more deeply than had occurred to me, by building a relevant concept into each layer of a painting. This makes so much sense: It enhances the idea of building a painting "the way the landscape was built" -- in terms of my work, building the layers of cold wax and paint in an echo of the way the Plateau was built. This was the breakthrough insight that I had last year in Wisconsin, but by adding conceptual meaning to each layer I put down, I also echo (though perhaps not literally) the individual history and nature of the various layers of the Plateau: Moenkopi with its chocolaty, crumbly consistency, Navajo with its creamy, smooth curves. The very method of painting pulls me more deeply into contact with my muse. I also had the idea to "age" each layer, stressing it by buffing and scraping, the way the strata of the Plateau have been weathered, and to "erode" some layers to reflect the way the sandstone has been eroded by water and wind.

These ideas for specific techniques enrich my sense that my painting guide/muse at all times is truly the Plateau and all its subthemes and concepts. I do not need to look elsewhere, though from elsewhere do come ancillary themes that are a part of me, such as the music~poetry~dance at the end of my list of concepts. They all fit together, in my mind, because they are all part of me. But my "aha" here is the acknowledgement that the Colorado Plateau is not just one idea; it is a mini-universe of ideas, all of which feed my creative expression. My process thus becomes an interaction between the various painting concerns (methods and materials) and the parameters of the various concepts (meaning). I use a concept in each layer while at the same time interacting with the painterly dynamics that are taking place (color, texture, space division, etc.). It is a conversation. And the conceptual focus is on essences and iconography rather than on things and labels, and it digs more deeply into the Plateau than I had considered doing before.

"Madrugada" (8"x10", above), also named after it was finished, is another of my pieces from last spring. It will be interesting to compare these with the pieces I create now that my concept and method are more fully developed.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

toward an iconography

During the workshop in Telluride, Rebecca shared an exercise in conceptual thinking that centered on choosing a conceptual word and keeping it in mind as a guide while painting. The idea appeals to me as I grapple with getting away from my literal mind and into my conceptual/emotional side.  So I am developing a list of words that reflect either my perceptions about the Colorado Plateau or other concepts that resonate with me.

The exercise suggests that the words reference open-ended ideas, and concepts rather than emotions. (This appeals to me -- I freeze when someone suggest that I "paint joy".)  It also recommends using words that do not reference concrete objects but rather their essences. In short, adjectives and adverbs rather than nouns.

It was fun to take this on and develop a list of words for myself. I didn't think much about it, I just let an initial set of words flow onto a piece of paper.  Then I looked at them a bit analytically.  Not surprisingly, in yet another reflection of my current orientation toward materials and methods (so tangible and well-defined!), over half of my concepts were nouns, references to concrete objects rather than to the more elusive qualities of those objects.  

The initial list, offered below for the record, will no doubt evolve. The next challenge is to use these words to develop a personal iconography that pervades my work and that the viewer of my paintings has to interpret. This will bring a depth of meaning to what I do.  A step along the path!

The image above is of "Puerta Escondida", 8"x12", from last March, in which I found "doorways" after I had finished the piece (another recommendation from Rebecca: let the image emerge or be decided toward the end of the process!)

concept list

petrified wood

earth ~ air ~ water           
music ~ poetry ~ dance

Monday, August 20, 2012

making a statement

An artist's statement is essentially a sales tool, an essay written to provide viewers an insight or two into the artist's life and work. But it can also be a mechanism for artistic self-reflection, as encouraged by Ariane Goodwin in her guide Writing the Artist Statement: Revealing the Spirit of Your Work. Business coach Molly Gordon offers a link to an excerpt that includes a series of exercises designed to help the artist articulate his or her creative vision.

My friend Phyllis ( came home with me to Torrey from the Oil & Cold Wax workshop in Telluride, and among other things, we went through some exercises from Goodwin and elsewhere and compared notes. Doing so reinforced my conclusion from the workshop that my primary challenge these days is in the area of meaning rather than in the areas of materials or methods, because my answers tended to be literal and process-oriented (makes sense -- that is what I do well) rather than meaning-oriented.  It's not that I don't put meaning into my work, but rather that I can't/don't articulate it.  And it is not as important that I articulate it in an artist statement as it is that I articulate it to myself, so that I can start to work consciously from a deeper space within me.

This parallels the challenge that I have, to interpret a mood or emotion in paint. I process what I paint through my literal, verbal mind, and I have a hard time letting that go and making a direct link from feeling to canvas. I'm not sure the latter is necessary, but I sense that it is something that I should explore. I am curious about it, for one thing.

The image above is a very unfinished piece from the workshop, but it shows some initial attempts at unthinking spontaneity. The exposed surfaces were created without verbally processing what I was doing. I plan to do more of the same.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

old friends

The past six months have been a time of travel (Spain, Bluff, Arizona), gardening, meditation, Buddhist study, and cello.  It has not been a time of painting, though I have not particularly avoided the studio.  Rather, other things have come first, and it has felt fine.

But a four-day workshop in oil and cold wax with Rebecca Crowell here in Telluride, CO, has brought me back to active painting and to this blog. These have been full days, immersed in the painting process and soaking up the companionship of fellow artists. It is a workshop similar to that which I attended last year in Wisconsin (see posts from August 2011), with much the same objective content, but with the different dynamics of a different group of participants, and a different impact on me because I am in a different place. As the workshop winds down, I want to summarize a few of the thoughts it has brought to mind, if for no other reason than to reinforce and clarify them for use as I return home.

I have pages of notes that I can already see fall into roughly three categories: lists of supplies, websites, and other resources; techniques of paint application and removal; and conceptual/theoretical concerns.  Put more succinctly: materials, methods, and meaning.

Materials and methods were very valuable to learn about or review during the workshop, but I come away from the week with a pretty clear conclusion that it is the third category that is my current challenge.  I know in general what meaning I want my work to contain: My muse is always the Colorado Plateau. This has been clear since I began painting, and I had a breakthrough moment in Wisconsin last summer when I could finally articulate it and its relationship to abstraction and cold wax.  But I need to go further; I need to parse out from that broad concept the details to put into my work.  Talking with Rebecca and with my friend Phyllis, who also came to the workshop, I think I see a way to approach this task. As the weeks and months ahead unfold, I will use this space to record the adventure.