Build it and They Will Come—A Mini-Memoir of a Grateful Builder

The title, from the movie Field of Dreams, suggests an overblown parallel to my mini-memoir. But the film shares a thread about need and belief that resonates. It seems appropriate as we approach our 10th annual open studio.

CHAPTER ONE

Once upon a time I was a fragile budding artist. I longed for things I could not name. I, like many late-blooming, 30-something “adolescents”, felt an itch that could not be scratched. It drove me in a direction that took continued, increased effort to deny. There was no map, no examples to look-to to locate this craving and satisfy it. And no potential pat-on-the-back for finding it. Surely, life told me, there were more important things to do—home-making, child-rearing, elder-care, money-making…

But… the itch… oh the itch…

CHAPTER TWO

Persistent longing and instinct led me back to the arts, which always served as a childhood salve to the anxiety of feeling lost and adrift. But in pursuing an art education and eventually a studio space I knew that it wasn’t just the art that I needed, but a like-minded community. I sought out a studio within a larger studio group. I met many fine women with whom it was fun to share things like collage nights, book-binding and paste papers, off-loom weaving and found object-sculpture, etc. We taught each other what we knew. And made up things we didn’t.

As things ebb and flow I eventually I landed with another more important group in my life that consisted of smart, sensitive, amazing artists. We talked endlessly of painting and philosophies and the meaning of life. It was more than sharing skills or techniques, it was heart-opening and soul-searching. I found my tribe. The love I felt for these folks and our sacred space seemed boundless. It was a home which, for some years, remained at the very heart of my growth and survival.

It was not to be sustained. Things change. Its demise was devastating.

CHAPTER THREE

Finding a group of artists to join is tricky. Artists are often highly strung, very sensitive and sometimes threatened by competition. A group with similar sensibilities and awareness and a place and time to gather is a rare thing. I knew a few people in the local art world but the alchemy needed was missing.

Luckily I was rich in support with a strong group of friends, some of whom expressed an interest in learning to paint. It was just after 9/11 when souls were bruised and being a part of a whole felt right. So with the generosity of a friend with a space, I started to teach—to build.

CHAPTER FOUR

Fast forward 15 years. A permanent place in a historic house built for a healer long ago serves as a home for shared sensibilities in the pursuit of creativity. The group grew to thirty people we now call ArtHouse 23. Some had never pursued painting until they arrived on the doorstep. Others studied in art school. The mutual care and respect and the willingness to explore interiors while learning the ins and outs of art-making has made an incredible thing–a community that is rich learning, inspiration and comradery.

The art that will be in this up-coming exhibition is increasingly vivid and resounding! I am so stirred when I see your visions. It keeps me on my toes in my own work. You all deserve to be proud of what you hang on the walls. It is not only lovely to look at, but authentic and meaningful. You have all shown your uniqueness and courage in following your own voice in how and what you create. I am ever-grateful for our fruitful discussions. You inspire me and each other.

When we walk the halls on June 4th and 5th it will be worth taking a minute to reflect on the journey. Think about how all that art came out of the same shared space and know the significance of your contribution to the whole. There’s a cost to that—showing up, caring, offering feedback, giving assistance, sharing materials, sharing pains and laughter, and a little food and drink. It is an investment you all make graciously. Your efforts have built the community that I longed for. Thank you for coming.

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The Karate Kid

Post cards of Richard Diebenkorn’s work have had a place on my studio wall since the early ‘80’s. His monographs are on the shelves. I have traveled specifically to see exhibitions of his work. His Ocean Park series with their luscious color fields; the perfectly balanced tension in the geometry; the pentimenti, indicating his journey– a journey…

This was the beginning of a blog post that I was enjoying writing. I’ve had a lot experience studying Diebenkorn’s work. I loved recalling and potentially sharing. The writing came easy. The words flowed. I had a smile on my face as I ferreted dates and periods and places and years I’d seen the work in person from my memory. I could describe with clarity and maybe even a little poetry why his work speaks to me. I outlined formal elements of both the Berkeley years and the later Ocean Park series. I had pictures prepared with descriptions! It was satisfying to produce something to which I expected a positive response. I really liked testing my knowledge and writing about it.

The blog post was inspired by a photo of a Diebenkorn painting that Laura K. posted on Facebook. Even though it was familiar, I actually gasped a bit when I scrolled down the webpage and spotted the image. It inspired me to write about how Diebenkorn’s work resonates and conveys a sense of place despite being completely abstract. And ultimately I wanted to talk about how it continues to inform and excite, regardless of the familiarity. And I wanted to explain how studying and manipulating the image on your phone or computer can teach a lot about composition.

DAMN!! In the act of cutting and pasting a simple 4-word sentence, my document of another 400+ words disappeared—not to be recovered. I have no idea what happened, but I had only saved part of the first unedited sentence. AARRGGHH!

I could try to re-create it. I thought about this option, but only for a minute. Although it is probably something a thoughtful person would do, I knew that the writing would then become labor. The fun would be gone. The initial effort was tapping into a river of knowledge that has swirled around me most of my adult life. The steady stream of studying art keeps me buoyed and riding that current when it’s flowing is a delight. Writing about it then is a stirring challenge. Recreating—not so much. Maybe the reconstructed post would turn out ok, or even better than ok. But what would be the purpose in that for me right now? The water was under the bridge.

I decided to embrace the greater lesson, about which I go on endlessly. So you got this blog post instead of the other one. We’ll never know if one is superior. Truly, if the value of creating is in the making then it doesn’t matter for me. And that’s why I write these, for me. I hope you like them, but it’s not the reason I write. Valuing process over product keeps the joy in doing alive. It colors the day in a positive way. The rewards reaped, especially at this stage of the game, are far greater if I can be true to that tenet. There’s nothing wrong with an ambition for excellence in the result. But most of the time, in my life now, I choose creating as a way of living and not a way of making a living. So I find that excellence in the endeavor rather than the outcome provides an ease to my life. Not to mention that the best work usually comes from that philosophy. Like any exercise, it’s the practice. It’s a Zen thing I guess. “Wax on, wax off.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aYl7N0JPWs

Painting on Laura’s post

 

 

 

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Maybe Next Week

My walls are lined with books about art, artists, creativity, the psychology of the creative process, the history of art, and the how-to’s. I’ve read most of all of them cover to cover, notated, re-read, etc.

For over thirty years my observation of my own painting process has amazed me. Lesson after lesson appears as struggles with choices, expectations, acceptance, failure, doubt and insecurity do-si-do with brush and hand.

I learn trust and patience along with the scrumptiousness of nickel-azo yellow mixed with phthalo turquoise. I learn how a small speck of light can make all the difference. I learn how the emotion felt from evocative music, or a fight with a friend, or the anticipation of an event, or the love of a child can affect the quality of a line. I learn how black can be rich and mysterious instead of dark and foreboding. And I learn how, despite my ideas, the painting can exert its own will. And I should trust that.

I’ve been at this long enough to know that, although feedback is helpful, I need to re-consider my own judgement. And that it has a wisdom that works hand in hand with the doing. Reacting too quickly to suggestions by someone else can break the connection. It takes time. Time to look, to know when to stop or when to re-work. Time creates one of the biggest pay-offs. Every painting can likely be improved, but then it may be a different painting. A balance of faith and discipline, practice and patience, and a willingness to offer up heart and soul is what makes a painting a poem or a song or a prayer.

Exhaustion from painting tells me I’ve given it it’s due. And when that connection happens, for me, life makes sense. Needless anxiety dissipates. Clarity and peace and a knowing that I fit into a larger whole makes it worthwhile.

Yet, despite all of those lessons that can apply to both art and to daily life, (except maybe the combo of turquoise and azo yellow), I’m often left with nothing to “say”. I start to write the blog and nothing comes. Hours, days pass and no ideas surface. Such a puzzle. All of those books, brushes, tubes and canvases and I’m good for little more than laundry and watching Dancing with the Stars.

Consequently, blogs take a holiday. Sorry. Maybe next week…

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Two or Three Things

This week two things signaled reminders for me about focus, trust, faith, and never being too old. As you likely know by now, every life lesson for me relates to the creative process.

Focus-what is it good for? Focus is that state of mind, that state of being in which you are connected completely. By focusing there is no pressure to do anything other than what you are doing. And you are doing it so wholly you are allowed to be truly yourself– mind and body make what they would make, when they make something. There is an ease to the endeavor.

First reminder–I tried to connect my phone (which had everything totally erased last week) to a speaker in order to hear music, something both Otis and I have done many times. (And he’s kind of a computer geek, so REALLY?) We were excited to entertain outdoors for the first time this year. But when I went to put on the music I couldn’t. Otis couldn’t either. For over 20 minutes between us, we struggled. Of course, at the same time we worried about our guests—Do they need anything? Is there enough ice? Are they getting hungry? Are they wishing for music? You’ve been there—it’s Thanksgiving and the turkey isn’t cooking so you burn the salad.

That’s the opposite of focus.

The next morning, without pressure, I connected the speaker in about 60 seconds.

The other thing that happened this weekend, which was all over the news, was the collapse of Jordan Spieth at the Master’s Golf Tournament. I’m not a fan of golf, but I do know that it is a mental game. And when this young golfer was heading to the finish with a big lead, he hit a bad shot, that led to another, and another, and another. Sports psychologist’s Monday morning analysis—if only he had not let that first errant shot shift his focus from what he knows how to do. If he had kept faith in his ability, he likely would have sailed to the championship.

I was reminded that in hoping to be the perfect hostess, or the champion golfer, wanting to do it just right or quickly, it meant the focus shifted and frustration had set it. The flow (and the thrill) had gone.

Wikipedia—“According to Mihaly Csikszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy while performing a task. Flow is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity.

This feeling of joy is the biggest reason I paint.

Finding “flow”, can start with ritual. When I begin, (you’re going to hate hearing this again), I choose a subject that speaks to me in that moment. I may have thought about painting this or that, but now I’m in front of the blank wall and this or that no longer interests me. So now what? I find something else in the studio, which is strewn with images that appeal. And I pay attention to them, choosing what needs to be chosen. I start by actually feeling the canvas. I feel it’s height and width and the surface. I spray it with water and I feel how the water moves over it. I usually start with charcoal, but maybe not. I scan the selection of media and pick one, without thinking. I respond to the abstracted light and dark shapes of my imagery and let my media do what it’s designed to do in response. I scan my paints, sometimes I have a new tube, which excites, or I choose a color out of curiosity. And go.

In that little routine I’ve created a channel between me, my hand, my subject and everything needed in my art-making process. Even in reiterating that sequence in writing, I begin to feel a calm, a focus, about to take hold.

If you have any tricks for focusing—share. If not, try mine. Someone suggested pot-that’s fine too. It’s legal!

In the “you’re never too old” category is a story of a woman who I can guarantee gets into the flow, based on her output. She painted nearly 400 works in her first 5 years starting at 90! This speaks to the value in just the doing. She is now 105 and she is about to have an exhibit in the states. Here is her story:

http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2016/02/05/105-year-old-australian-aboriginal-artist-honored-with-u-s-exhibition/

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Semantics

Visual language. Expression. Artist. Authenticity. Statement. Creating. Creativity. Original. Style or technique. Mix up those words to form different sentences. If you can think about your art-making in these terms, the doors of possibility will be more open. There is a skill set that can be practiced and the more that happens, the likelihood you will find fluidity in your expression. But the more important elements can be described with the words above.

Rick Bartow, one of our great Oregon artists, died this week. Coincidently I had finally tracked down a video about him I had seen years ago. I wanted to show it in class specifically because of our latest focus on visual imagery as language. And I finally found where to buy one. (Salem Art Association.)

Here is his artist’s statement from 1990:

          “Marc Chagall once said ‘let us try to discover what is authentic in our lives’. I think the next step is to attempt an expression of that authenticity.

         I have recently begun to employ more than one figure in the work, a conscious effort to remove the figurative element from a psychological to a more physically involved state. It also stems from a desire to see people not alone.

        At times I understand where an image originates, but more often than not it is the initial result of an unconscious use of line and form.

       The energy of the work sometimes becomes too active for a small format. The gestures can now utilize a larger area.

       As life becomes richer and more dear, the drawings become larger, more involved, the imagery more complex and the color more intense, in an effort to express what I feel is authentic.” R.E. Bartow 1990

He talks about what is on his mind and how the size, format, color and gesture of his work varies in response to those concerns. Response. It implies dialogue. Simply reproducing an image without it is likely less engaging to the viewer—and to the maker for that matter.

So think in terms of dialogue. One thing changes the next in response to what has gone before. There is no way to solve all the problems of a piece at one time. Paint the whole surface as a reaction to the way things are developing, don’t try to pre-think to the end result. Examine your thoughts and feelings of each element you add or change. How does it visually affect the whole?  What does it say?  (DO NOT insert anything negative here.)

This takes LOOKING. As I’ve said ad nauseam—Time and looking is as important as moving the color, line, etc. etc. around. It’s as important as drawing and color theory, among other things.  And you don’t have to learn it.  You just have to do it and then pay attention to what you see.  Until you can allow yourself that, you will only add to any frustration you find in the process.

I’ll be showing the video of Rick Bartow in action this week. You will see his engagement in the process and perhaps get a hint of how his concerns manifest themselves on paper. (It is not available online.)

An absolutely beautifully written article by Oregonian writer, Bob Hicks, about Rick Bartow can be found here: http://www.orartswatch.org/a-death-in-the-family-rick-bartow/

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Storytelling

The idea of painting as a visual language is not new. But we rarely consider the correlation of the pen and the brush. For beginning and often-confused artists (like me), who struggle, (daily), seeing the similarities may be helpful.

The word “composition” is a key. Composing in writing has rules of grammar and punctuation and “elements of style”. Because these are emphasized throughout our school years and we learn them over time, we don’t feel lacking because in the third grade we wrote differently than in the college. Yet, even though one may have not had any art training since the third grade, as adults, when we pick up a brush and don’t know what to do with it, we deem we are talentless. I’m not exactly sure what “talent” is. There are examples after examples of seemingly talented folks who don’t make good art and vice versa, but that’s another subject.

Connecting the familiar idea of writing with a less familiar idea of painting may lessen the pangs of immediate judgement, which is too often death to art-making.

The elements and principles of design are helpful. Sort of. (I have handouts, we’ve studied them, look them up if you’re not familiar—they’re easily found). Sometimes knowing there are “rules” to follow makes painting less mysterious. But creativity is very often about breaking rules. If we’re after poetry in painting (and we are), think of rules like those in Haiku. Rules may be the ticket. But the abandonment of ee cummings or Jack Kerouac, may also inspire. Be aware of your preference and play to that. Or, do an “about face”. Look for rules to break to see what happens. (Are you imagining examples?)

When writing/painting, nouns/objects play the biggest role. They are modified by “adjectives”. Verbs add action or tension. The story you want to tell, the statement you want to make, informs your choices. I think this is sometimes the hardest part of the process–choosing a subject. Subject is what often drives one to paint and a well-chosen subject can provide a lot of fuel for the endeavor.But alas, I’ve been there too. Anxious to dig into colors, harmonies, texture and line, but have no idea and not sure where to look for one . Just as writers advise, prepare by observing, taking time. “Notice what you notice”. And then honor what comes forth.  Write/paint without thinking.

A simplistic example: You love trees, you’ve been to the forest, you take some photos or you recall memoires (very, very hard to work from just memories. By all means do it, but it’s hard.) So what about those trees do you love—are they massive and majestic and will outlast us all and that moves you? – are they saplings, elegant and graceful and a little fragile? –it is hot and they offer shade? –or has a storm taken the leaves and they are black with rain and rich moss? How many to make the whole interesting? If it’s one tree, how do you make it enough? Trees, etc. are the nouns. Adjectives are shape, size and color and will describe the space, the temperature, the time of day, the time of year. And a verb will determine tension and relationships between objects. It connects things.

Your technique (i.e. Haiku, Kerouac or Shakespeare, etc.) is the thing you develop by connecting to your subject and by the doing. Like your signature, it must flow from you to not feel stilted or false. It may be a way of applying paint never seen before or it may emulate a favorite artist until your own technique, your own vocabulary, emerges. Play with this. Observe whether you like to blend, to scrape and scratch or to draw; whether color is subtle or vibrant or you are driven to strong contrasts. Know that anything you like is worthy, just be aware. Practice that–being aware. Your job is to connect to a subject (story, idea, place, person or thing), and then balance, harmonize and unify by a techniques that suit you.

So now imagine those trees in the hands of various artists—Pollock’s would be dancing (actually, dripping), Turner’s would be shrouded in a mist, or a storm, but light would emanate, and Rothko would be painting a meditation. Van Gogh? Picasso? They all tell different stories about the same subject. Their approach often stems from curiosity. About what are you curious? To what do you connect? What story is yours? Think of painting in this way and see if it doesn’t open up possibilities.

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A Painting Primer

Just this week I’ve painted on: paper, (nice paper—300 LB Lanaquarelle), with the remains of several starts, leaving a highly textured underpainting; a smooth, gessoed panel; and a fresh canvas. Each substrate has a different feel and takes paint differently. I’m not sure whether the viewer can tell any of it, but as the painter, I can tell a great deal of difference in the benefits and limits to all of them. Each surface responds to my touch in a different way and requires a particular mark-making “vocabulary” in order to communicate—in order to get the paint to do what I want. (Although it still has a worthy mind of its own, much like a teenager.)

My favorite surface is a clean, white sheet of hot press, good quality paper at least 140lb weight. Of course 200–300lb paper is even better. When I dampen the surface of this beauty and then begin to register the darkest darks of the composition in charcoal, silky shadows spread with ease leaving a rich, black stain to be absorbed into the surface. From there my mood, the music, the subject, carefully chosen, etc., all have a hand on what comes next.

The smooth hard surface of board absorbs nothing. Paint can run and drip, sometimes too much. The board resists any pressure. This lends itself to using tools that scrap thin layers across the surface, drying quickly allowing for new layers, creating visual texture and depth of color in each passage. The same impetus informs the progress, but the process of creating layered passages of angles and lines derived from the tools is a little like building with Legos. Lyrical lines and blended passages tend to play second fiddle to the structural quality of rubber palette knives and color shapers.

The canvas comes with its own subtle and uniform texture that used to get in my way. But I’ve learned to tolerate it. The ease with which I can turn the painting while working and ultimately frame it leads me to use canvas more frequently than the other substrates. But its spring-back in response to pressure influences my marks. The tooth of its texture tends to grab the paint, even when I don’t want it to. It’s my least favorite, but most practical.

Brushes for any surface contributes to the paint quality. I am a brush whore. Brushes are the most exciting and the most expensive things I own other than house, car and a few pieces or furniture. There is so much possibility in a brush!  Bristles (many kinds) are stiffer than hair and allow a dry-brush technique that leaves space between threads of paint. When loaded with multiple colors you can create an irregular, woven-look, allowing for luminosity. Hair brushes (also many kinds) absorb water and offer smooth brushwork. Flat brushes carve. Pointed rounds make expressive lines. Mop and Hake (wash) brushes hold lots of water and pigment allowing for covering large areas. And when used mostly dry, with a spritz of water from a spray bottle, they’re great for blending.

Choice alternates between what I want the painting to look like and how much I enjoy using the tools. The look evolves with my understanding of the subject. Sometimes the enjoyment can cause overworking.

Overworking. It’s the god’s punishment for playing with materials and tools too much, or being a perfectionist, or trying to control the process. Stopping. Looking. From a DISTANCE. It is the only way to evaluate what you are doing. Putting work in progress on a wall to gaze at it for a while has NOTHING to do with display, exhibition, or pride in any way. No one sees it that way but you (if you are guilty of this misunderstanding).  Looking at a distance is ESSENTIAL to seeing! The only judgement is yours. (And while you’re working it may be the only judgement that counts, but go easy and let others help you see.)

Painting is a visual language. Just like words, grammar and punctuation are all means of arriving at a statement, your tools, your media and substrate choices all contribute to your technique, which as Jackson Pollack says: “Technique is simply a means of arriving at a statement”. What are you going to say today?

Up Next—a Grammar Lesson.

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“Bonnarding”

After visiting Pierre Bonnard’s joyous body of work currently on exhibit at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco I can report it is both other-worldly and very familiar. Its luminosity seems to radiate magically from behind the canvas. But the subjects are simple. Daily. Intimate.

Art critic Robert Hughes describes this Intimist tradition- “It assumes that the ordinary day-to-day… is deeply interesting as a subject of a painting. Not because it is lent grandeur by being part of the stage of an artists’ life… but rather because it shows that life…, in its ordinary quality just like yours or mine, … transcends its commonplaceness, thus giving us hope of meaning…in our own lives.” As Hughes continued to describe Bonnard’s work “…unheroic, but exquisitely phrased”.

Bonnard’s particular view must have involved serious personal reflection. To me his work is a soulful meditation on the everyday. It shows an awareness of the notion that “life happens when you’re making other plans.”

Bonnard may have been the first “process painter”. Process painting is the heart of abstract expressionism with its expressive, emotional and immediate concerns. It had its roots in Post WWI Surrealism and Dada. His working method was very modern, leaving room for flexibility and improvisation. It spoke to his delight in pushing the color about. His simple subject matter allowed for formal concerns. He did not care to fight the elements or the changing light in order to paint au plein air like his early contemporaries, the Impressionists. It interfered with the doing. His tiny, notated sketches of what was in his view in house and garden was enough to get started. From there the painting informed itself.

From the MOMA website- Instead of painting on stretched canvases, resting at a     convenient height and tilting at a comfortable angle on an easel, Bonnard chose to paint on unstretched pieces of canvas that he thumb-tacked to the walls of his studios or hotel rooms.

Several pieces of roughly cut canvas were juxtaposed on the wall in several rows, very near each other, often abutting.

Bonnard had several works in progress at any one time, of diverse subjects. Once he had mixed a particular color, he applied it on the various compositions he had on the wall.

Sometimes he painted various compositions directly on a single large canvas that he did not cut until later on.

He did not use a palette, but mixed his colors on plates, and walked back and forth between the wall and the table on which his plates were placed.

He found delight in seeing unpredictable color dance, wriggle and weave about the canvas with a sense that there was no absolute, but always room for experiments and improvements. Try this yellow there and there AND there—and oh, this vermillion over there. Color was not “local”, but for effect. Black was rare, but judiciously placed. Perspective was whimsical. The narrative was enigmatic.

He was not unequivocal as a painter, but instead he demonstrated the idea that we grow and we can more clearly express what we’re trying to say as we learn. Nothing was ever finished. The term “Bonnarding” was coined because of his practice of going to a gallery, an exhibition or even a collector’s home armed with palette and brush in order to change colors on a framed piece hanging on the wall. On his deathbed he had his nephew bring him his last painting so he could change a green foreground into yellow.

The lessons of Bonnard are simple, measured, redemptive and reaffirming. There is no perfect. Only seeing. Doing.  And a willingness to honor what we know and to keep looking.

The Buddhist poet Jane Hirschfield penned this poem about Bonnarding.

nothing ever finished

Because nothing is ever finished

the painter would shuffle, bonnarding,

into galleries, museums, even the homes of his patrons,

with hidden palette and brush:

overscribble drapery and table with milk jug or fattened pear,

the clabbered, ripening color of second sight.

 

Though he knew with time the pentimenti rise—

half-visible, half brine-swept fish, their plunged shapes

pocking the mind—toward the end, only revision mattered:

to look again, more deeply, harder, clearer,

the one redemption granted us to ask.

 

This, we say, is what we meant to say. This. This.

—Jane Hirshfield, from “History as the Painter Bonnard,” The October Palace (Harper Perennial, 1994)

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Elevating the Ordinary

The work of Pierre Bonnard is currently on display at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. I love this work. I was fortunate enough to stumble on a major retrospective at MOMA in 1998. The effects of that exhibit linger. Beautiful, shimmering color and evocative spatial relationships depict simple images of everyday life. Many of his paintings include secreted, sometimes humorous, iconography like the Hidden Pictures in children’s magazines. Repeated looking often reveals an unexpected encounter with a dog, or a cat, or an unknown visitor. The kind of thing to bring a smile.

He painted from memory and from small sketches scratched into a Mole Skin date book. Most sketches were not more than 2 inches square, perhaps contributing to the immediacy of the finished work. He worked on several unstretched canvases at time incorporating painting into a daily routine of meals, walks and gardening. He was known for never being quite satisfied. Even after the work was on exhibit he would sneak in a brush full or two of paint to make adjustments. A story about him on his deathbed declares that he asked his beloved nephew to add just a little dot of yellow to one of the canvases hanging around his room.

In his early twenties (late 1800’s) he became a lawyer while simultaneously pursuing the path of a painter. He was a student of Gauguin, a roommate of Denis, Serusier and Vuillard who together, along with others from the Académie Julian, formed a group called the Nabis (from the Hebrew word for ‘prophets’). Gauguin believed that forms and figures and colors could possess meaning over and above the depicted image. The Nabis echoed that idea, believing that color and shape, in and of themselves, could symbolize experience individual to the creator and thereby elevating communication with the viewer. (They were inspired by the two-dimensional decorative arts of Japan that had recently made their way to Paris.) The Nabis were also called Symbolists.

But Picasso found little merit in Bonnard’s elevated practice of reflection in his painting: “That’s not painting, what he does. He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn’t know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky, perhaps he first paints it blue, more or less the way it looks. Then he looks a little longer and sees some mauve in it, so he adds a touch or two of mauve, just to hedge. Then he decides that maybe it’s a little pink too, so there’s no reason not to add some pink. The result is a potpourri of indecision. If he looks long enough, he winds up adding a little yellow, instead of making up his mind what colour the sky really ought to be. Painting can’t be done that way. Painting isn’t a question of sensibility: it’s a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice … that’s what I hold against Bonnard. I don’t want to be moved by him. He’s not really a modern painter: he obeys nature; he doesn’t transcend it.” Pablo Picasso

Yet Matisse called Bonnard “the greatest of us all.” Perhaps painting is a question of the artist’s own sensibility?

Bonnard’s nephew (sister’s son), Charles Terrasse, authored a monograph on Bonnard in 1927. He said of his uncle– “He wished to paint only happy things”.

I’d prefer to think that he favored what was most familiar to inspire. The grandeur of subject matter is not necessary to paint powerful works that transcend the canvas and elevate the viewer. Bonnard did not need sumptuous sunsets or majestic mountains. He did not need aristocrats or wealthy patrons. He did not need exotic lands or political causes in order to find a worthy subject. He merely looked at his garden, his bathroom, his kitchen table, his wife. He did not need to tell a story.

The act of painting,  the intermingling of dazzling brushwork and color as shapes weave across the canvas with subtle contrast but plenty of light was, for him, enough to challenge both the artist and the audience. Bonnard said: “The precision of naming takes away from the uniqueness of seeing. Painting has to get back to its original goal, examining the inner lives of human beings.” That which we choose to surround ourselves on a daily basis—the coffee cup and the grocery bag, the flower pot and the paint brush—shoes—perhaps these are the things that are most indicative of our inner lives. Perhaps they are enough to inspire. The challenge this week is to choose your subject from among the ordinary and paint as if you love every stroke of the brush.

“The important thing is to remember what most impressed you and to put it on canvas as fast as possible.” Pierre Bonnard.

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Awe-some!

Last year a previously undiscovered canyon in the Jefferson Wilderness was accessed by a team of adventurers. Their trek was televised by Oregon Field Guide. We watch while they negotiate waterfall after waterfall. Forty feet, thirty feet, two one-hundred-foot waterfalls meet in a pool—nine waterfalls in all, with a glacier-blue glow. Steep canyon walls of gray and black basalt reach to the translucent sky.

The voyagers name this place Valhalla. They speak of its spirituality. Strikingly beautiful. Jaw-dropping.  The cameraman says they feel “wonderfully small” with this rare perspective. It was described as surreal landscape full of “violent” greens– bright greens, mid greens, dark greens, mint greens, greens everywhere– rock formations–rushing water, icy blue–infinite, sparkling color and texture. They are overwhelmed by the beauty of this never-before-seen place. They grope for words to sum up what they see. They say: “it’s Like a painting”.

Reverently describing one of Mother Nature’s greatest works as “like a painting”?! Yowza—the power of painting!

Last weekend at a meeting of artists and art-lovers the relevance of painting in the contemporary art world was discussed. One remark that brought a smile was when someone named Tad reminded the group that paint is a “medium”. A medium–(from Merriam Webster): a means of effecting or conveying something (1) :  a substance regarded as the means of transmission of a force or effect (2) :  a surrounding or enveloping substance (3) :  the tenuous material (as gas and dust) in space that exists outside large agglomerations of matter (as stars). And of course, I thought of a séance.

Stars. Communicating with the dead. Transmission of a force or effect. In other words, MAGIC! Paint is no less for me. A joy to handle, to squeeze, to dance, play and party with—pouring dripping, scumbling, slathering, dusting, drawing—drawing in terms of rendering and drawing in terms of drawing out—paint is a powerful medium. It can open rooms, worlds, hearts and minds—not the least of which is the painter’s.

When approaching the endeavor of “painting” it might pay to forgo the image of yourself painting something to be judged, to impress or wow–LET THAT GO! There is too much of that. And, as a child might, be aware that there is magic and possibility in the medium at your fingertips. Children want to “see what will happen”. Try that approach. Stay with it even when it is uncomfortable and unlikely that the result will turn out ok. You may find enough in the doing to ultimately feel that the experience was “awe-some”.

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