Georgia on My mind

In researching what to write about still lifes I’ve come across many essays on the subject that are mostly boring. There’s the essay on the Dutch tradition from the 1600’s. And then there’s the Spanish and Italian tradition that date from the same period. Some still lifes were created for a market of wealthy people so they could decorate barren walls in which flowers, especially in the north, were often the chosen subject. Then there are essays that explain the various symbolism that a still life can hold from the pious painters of the 17th and 18th centuries to the 21st century surrealists. There are examples of how objects point to allegories and religious tales reminding the viewer to obey God and that life is short and that reality may be different than you think. Etc. Etc.

What I like about still life as subject is basic– its availability. There is always a collection items around the house/studio to paint. And one item multiplied can serve just as well as a collection.

I like that they allow for ready practice. Their lowly stature in the art-subject hierarchy can render them insignificant. So practicing can be sans pressure. Any scrap of paper and a pencil allows for practicing “seeing”.

I like that they allow for immediate change– move things anyway you want whenever, either physically or in the mind’s eye. Draw an object or series of objects partially one way then switch to an alternate view. So much freedom to play around. Study shadows one-minute, negative space the next. And then mix it all up. You never have to feel as if you are starting a work of art. Simply sketching and experimenting. No incredible landscape light to lose or model to get tired. No important message to expose.  One of favorites is painting my paint brushes.

Because of their flexibility and potential simplicity, the best thing about working with still lifes for me is that they make room for an artist’s vision to expand. They allow you to fall in love with bits and pieces like shadows and patina and lines. And their ease and availability can offer room for dreaming and connecting. It’s easy enough to use them to stretch, to create new worlds, create a statement. If your still life isn’t inspiring add or subtract as needed.   Borrow from another artist. Insert a photo. Change the story.

That’s why it was Cezanne’s subject of choice. He had “bigger fish to fry”. The apple and its company allowed Cezanne to think and paint thoughts about art and vision that had never been done before.

Picasso and Braque could expand a vase and a guitar into Cubism.

And Morandi—that simple collection of bottles and pitchers on a small format in neutral colors gave him the opportunity for poetry.

Then there’s Georgia O’Keefe. She painted flowers. BIG. And when she couldn’t find flowers she painted bones and crosses and shells. Then she edited the unnecessary. The editing—brilliant!

So as you approach this most humble of subjects look at the possibilities of pulling apart, putting together, combining the unexpected, exploiting the forms, repeating, stretching, cropping editing, etc. Let this simple subject give you lots of ideas. Referring to a broken dish in her studio O’Keefe said: “I got half-a-dozen paintings from that shattered plate.”

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An Apple a Day

A simple arrangement of objects. In French, “natur mort”. In a two dimensional picture plane we refer to it as a “still life”. This modest idea has spanned centuries, from adorning the inside of Egyptian tombs to provide the dead with nourishment, to serving as the subject that revolutionized painting with the work of Paul Cezanne in the late 19th century. And onward when the poetic tonal subtlety of Georgio Morandi and the bold view of Georgia O’Keefe spoke to the next generations.

According to the Tate Modern: “There has been surprisingly little change in the type of objects used. But the way they have been depicted has changed, reflecting developments in style and technique.” And marking significant periods in art history.

Many artists naturally relied on collected objects, beloved because of form, function, color or patina that found their way to be strewn about the studio. They were simple, readily-available subjects on which to experiment with technique, brushwork or more profound philosophies.

Cezanne’s still lifes are on what his reputation as the “father of modern art” is built. Reiner Maria Rilke was so moved by seeing them in the 1907 Autumn Salon exhibition at the Grand Palais, a year after the artist’s death, Rilke visited it every day. And he wrote subsequent letters to his wife, a sculptor, about what he experienced. In them he saw the artist’s very struggle to create. A resulting book, Letters on Cezanne, still captivates creators and lovers of art and literature.

The tradition of still life painting a long and varied. Using it as our focus this week and next, we will have the opportunity to discharge thoughts and energy and to play with ideas and paint techniques.

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A Damn, Fine Concert

Well, I’m exhausted! Unbelievable!

Unbelievable was the turnout at our annual open studio in 100-degree heat. Unbelievable how crowded the hottest rooms in the house were. Unbelievable that the entire group set-up took a little over 90 minutes and clean-up was even less—the power of teamwork. Unbelievable how Roxy could organize and manage so efficiently while battling a life-threatening disease. (Nan’s Wonder Woman was really modeled after Roxy.) And unbelievable the amount of fantastic painting that has taken place in our ArtHouse in the last year.

The growth was so evident that every person who frequents our annual event commented on it. Everyone deserves to be proud.

Spending the time and having the courage to explore an activity that can be so rife with judgement, so daring when one is authentic, and so revealing when it is on display is no small thing. It has the power to enlighten.

When you can look at your work as objectively as possible, in context of the whole and in context with others, displayed as is typical, it informs you about your vision, your voice, your ideas. As poet Mary Oliver says, an idea can be picked up, reflected upon, opposed and expanded—a delightful way to pass an afternoon.

Painting as poetry–an apt comparison. To quote Ms. Oliver further: “It is an effort to formalize (ritualize) individual moments and the transcending effect of these moments into music that all can use.”

Think of it! Creating a transcending effect of music that all can use.

Well done!

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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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