Who? What? When? Where? and Why?

As a journalism major I was taught the first line of any news story should answer the questions: Who? What? When? Where? And Why? Despite my reluctance to see this type of criteria for viewing art, it’s becoming apparent that the institutional art world is more comfortable when the answers to these questions can be checked off.

The opposing view is more romantic and probably also true: Curators judge a work by an unfettered gaze at it and it alone. It’s the hit in the solar plexus upon viewing that is the ultimate judge. The gallery owner Jeffrey Thomas said recently that “if I can describe a work of art over the phone to you and you ‘get it’, it’s not art”. That’s a little extreme and I think he meant it to be. He’s commenting on how, right now, the contemporary art world seems to prefer a lot of “words” to accompany an artist’s vision.

On one day recently I participated in visiting four artists in their studios in the morning with a museum curator and then a gallery talk by four other artists in the evening. The morning artists, who happened to be under forty, had been awarded by a museum. The evening talk was by established artists, most well over 50. The younger artists were very cerebral in their approach. Connections were made like “the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone”. The evening group, who also have at least local renown, had trouble finding words. Their approach was more intuitive and “web-like” –more holistic, perhaps, like meridians in the body. And their delivery rolled up and down like ocean waves as their emotion ebbed and flowed. Contemporary art seems to be of two minds.

I’ve been painting for over 30 years, exhibiting, teaching, studying hard, as much as I could when I could. But I have no MFA and my resume is thin. I’ve had some immediate success and awards and also years of obscurity. I’ve vacillated between wanting to know desperately “what do they want” and not giving a damn. Now, watching others in our group struggle with the same issues, I’m seeking clarity. But I honestly don’t think any is to be found.

From James Joyce to Dr. Seuss, the rejection of now famous writers is legendary. And Van Gogh is the most iconic painter to suffer endless years of desperation trying to understand the “salon-world”. These are the creators “they” didn’t understand.

As we move forward in a creative practice for some of us there is an interesting choice at hand. Listening to artists who are passionate and articulate can guide. Trying to put vision into words. Working toward things that can build resumes. Answering the questions. Or ignoring the world and following the heart.  Or letting one inform the other and allowing the balance to come as it will. We all decide in our own way.

Below are two paintings by two different artists.  Size is similar, format slightly different.  One photo is professionally taken  the other is not and is decidedly brighter than the actual work.  One was painted a year before the other . The second piece is by Helen  O’Toole, winner of a NW Contemporary art award this year.  It is oil on canvas, entitled Stumble.  Her work will be on display at the Portland Art Museum this month.


And You Wonder 2011Helen o'toole_Stumble Oil on Canvas 2012

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What’s Next?

studio wallAfter a dearth of studio time for the past year, this week I dove in. Paint– sumptuous, full of promise, easily jumped onto the canvas. What a feeling! Although I knew that the-ease-of-doing would be short-lived, I relished every minute and chose not to doubt. Canvas, paper, board, some fresh, some with prior attempts, offered places in which to wander.

Whenever a painting starts to look good and starts to mean something it’s easy to get too careful. Signs of discovery are replaced by marks that are not energized and searching, but cloying and timid. Uncertainty takes the place of intention. Not good.

So what’s next? Let me confirm, there is no easy formula. The closest I can come to describe reliable next steps would be to say that it’s about creating a mental, emotional and physical environment for creativity to grow. And then take time to look.

On this particular day I have five paintings in various stages of completion. One is from an underpaintng that has been used for everything from a demonstration to a door mat. It is the next big one to tackle. There is some good mark-making in it, some fine painting “accidents” and pretty decent form over all. It reminds me of walking in the swamps in South Carolina, a lacy, draping density allowing beads light to bounce over congealed water. Sun rays peak through low-hanging moss. At least that’s what I see in this black and pink mélange. A landscape of contrasts. I’m intrigued, but not enough to pick up a brush.

Then there is a piece that came from two sessions (months apart) of laying-in a structure of lights and darks. The palette in each pass was completely different inspired by different landscape photos. Within an hour of beginning magic occurred–no idea how it happened. A painting appeared. I didn’t/don’t totally trust it. But I think I’ve finally learned to be patient and let them sit a while before over-reacting. It’s too easy to kill the spark. It’s close, but not quite there. A honed eye will most likely inform the next move—eventually.

There is another work on paper that is representative of struggle and gnashing of teeth–scratched, rubbed, scrubbed, gold leafed–nothing but doubt on that piece. But somehow I love the random way it’s become organized and how my frustration has turned into boats and a storm. I love this painting. But it isn’t right yet and I keep looking at it out of the corner of my eye–mentally cropping, imagining color shifts–nothing for sure yet.

I have a small one-foot square canvas that has been the recipient of leftover paint randomly placed on the surface over months. A studio mate came in and complimented. Enough to get me to ponder. I get it? Maybe. But am I fooling myself? I didn’t really pay attention to it. Is that it’s only fault? Does it matter, such a small thing? If an artist like Angelina likes it, is that enough? So I watch that one with the other eye.

Then there is a small scrap of paper that was left in the classroom. It started as someone’s first attempt at figure drawing. Very tentative minimal contour lines of the standing model were left on a long, gray rectangle. I turned it horizontally and filled in each area of negative space with a random light. It started the week we began cleaning out the stacks so it went up on the wall for anyone to mark in it. Week two of that process I blithely scribbled charcoal on it in rhythm to the music and eventually turned it back to a vertical. Shawn walked by toward the end of class and gave it some much-needed red that was left on her palette. I began to see something in it. Wasn’t sure what, but I put it in my studio. After staring at it for a while it began to remind me of photos of Scotland daughter Kate took on a hike when she got engaged. With cell phone hanging on the wall (bad practice) I began to render that scene. I like it this one.

Mid-week and one day thus far was just for looking. Seriously. Lights on. Lights off. Hours. Not sitting and just staring, maybe a little clean-up or answering an email, writing this post, glancing at Facebook, all the while trying to catch the paintings by surprise to see if they will give me a clue as to what they need– annihilation or coaxing? A flourish or a bath?

I can’t wait to get into the studio today, turn on the music, light a candle or two, make some tea. Perhaps if I sneak up on them they will reveal a path. If not, I’ll look to other artists for their directions to borrow. I’ll read some poetry.  Daydream. Eventually, and this is the important part, I will commit to have some faith in what comes next and just wait.


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Hearing Voices

The image of the lone artist, toiling away in isolation in a solitary studio may be more of a romantic idea than actuality. Other than painters, sculptors and poets or novelists, all various kinds of art-makers need others to make their art—musicians to play, actors to act, dancers to dance, craftsmen to build, etc.

Last night I sat in a local theater and watched a film of a play (film of a play, I know, weird) being performed at the newly renovated Garrick Theater in London. The visually sumptuous details of the lovingly restored 100+ year-old theater were on screen prior to the start of The Winter’s Tale. During those ten minutes or so of Kenneth Branagh’s silky-voiced descriptions my imagination led to Shakespeare, the artist and his art. I was struck by how many people have been involved in bringing Shakespeare to life for over 400 years.

My image of him is from the movie Shakespeare in Love—a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants, passionate, emotional man, sometimes inspired, sometimes not, always behind and often writing onstage with the help of his acting company. Yes, genius came from his pen, but various words, phrases and ideas were often supplied by others. And the publication of the folios were the efforts of his colleagues who also did some editing. So what we see and hear now is not only interpreted, but was not 100% his to begin with. Does that diminish him as an artist?

Realizing that this greatest of all wordsmiths had the aid of colleagues and supporters during his lifetime, after his lifetime and all the way to the present, I started thinking about the painters who, despite the romantic ideal, were definitely not always working alone in isolation: Braque and Picasso developed Cubism together; Vlaminck, Derain and Matisse painted side by side in their fishing boats, their work echoing each other’s; Cassatt and Degas painted in the studio and worked on the same plates for the printing presses; Warhol and Basquiat; etc., etc. These were brilliant creators who, despite their ego requirements, cared more about the pursuit of discovery than an overblown sense of their own originality. Matisse and Picasso, almost in dialogue, interpreted each other for years, respectively in their own language.

Before the modern era, every prominent painter had assistants who did more than just mix paints. Many, many painters throughout history employed apprentices to do much of the brushwork and who knows exactly where their work starts and stops.

So how do we think about this idea of creativity and originality in art-making?

The pursuit of art is the pursuit of truth—one’s own truth, that is not wholly known. But we seek the glittering shards of it and piece them together. Contributions by others sifted through our own, one-of-a-kind filters can underwrite originality. The endeavor is about discovery and understanding, leading to more discovery. It’s not about some idea of originality born divinely out of the ether. Information is not originality, information is not wisdom, information is not knowledge. Information in the form of advice or opinion, or a touch, or an idea is simply a tip for formulating the questions.

Art isn’t a destination it’s a progression. And a remnant of a map left on the road with a few clues doesn’t make the journey invalid. Tell either Picasso or Matisse that their plate of lemons is other than art. Or tell Rembrandt that The Night Watch isn’t great because of his apprentice’s hand.

Whatever your personal philosophy is, or however your work takes shape, It’s the authentic pursuit that will speak to the viewer. If you believe in that and trust that your voice will emerge regardless of any helping hand used to get through the wobbly parts, your work will ultimately be original.

Borrow and, as Picasso, one of the most original of creators, says, steal. It’s all fair in service of discovering your own voice.

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Why create? Ask the Experts.

Ask people why they pursue any activity beyond their daily necessities and the answer will generally fall into one of two categories–self-improvement (includes duty, generosity and illumination) or pure enjoyment. If art-making is not a daily necessity, why do it? Some specific responses from some contemporary artists:

Sculptor Richard Serra says he creates art as a way to solve interesting problems about life, and believes that artistic creation influences the way we see the world.

Gina Gibley, Choreographer— “I make art for a few reasons. In life, we experience so much fragmentation of thought and feeling. For me, creating art brings things back together.”

Judy Dater-photographer— “I like expressing emotions—to have others feel what it is I’m feeling when I’m photographing people.”

Pete Docter, Pixar animator/director— “I make art primarily because I enjoy the process. It’s fun making things.”

An answer I’ve never heard an artist utter–“I create to make beautiful, completely original, one-of-a-kind, significant works of art.” That may be the hope, but it’s rarely the impetus. Yet so often the canvas is approached with those kinds of expectations–so much pressure!!! Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the emotion? The centering? The problem-solving? Or even the understanding? So why do so many people act like the reason for art-making is achieving a grand result? The pressure creates unproductive anxiety. And it can, and most likely will, lead to a stifling, stultifying preciousness.

Process, process, process. I know I beat this drum A LOT, but watching people work week after week it’s what I see A LOT–an uncomfortable response to what are perceived as missteps. If you exploring and having fun and attempting to understand something, when and where are the missteps?

As a reminder to us all some great innovators share their wisdom. Mondrian said “I don’t want pictures. I just want to find things out.” And Picasso: “One doesn’t make a painting, one makes studies, …” “I am seeking.” said Vincent Van Gogh.

So if you’re making studies and seeking and finding things out almost anything goes. There’s no right or wrong approach, or technique, or mixing of ideas or materials, or no collaboration that, in the pursuit of learning, is without merit. Let someone or something you may not like shake you out of a rut. Copy, borrow, steal, stumble, make mud and bad noses. Get advice. And choose to ignore it too.

Then hear this: “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing.  Making your unknown known is the important thing.” Georgia O’Keeffe

The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.”  Auguste Rodin


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Once More To the Breach!

This past weekend a film of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Henry V showed locally. The day of the actual performance was the 600th anniversary of the famous battle of Agincourt, (featured in the play). And as next year is the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, which is a big deal for THE ROYAL SHAKESPEARE Company, and because it was being filmed, stakes were high.

The artistic director of the company directed the play—always a sign of the prominence of the production. The theater itself is inspired by the Globe. It features a small, thrust stage with all the bells and whistles one would expect from the pedigree. Set, costume, concept, etc. all very learned. The acting was definitely competent. It was clear the cast took their job seriously and reached for the stars.

Yet, as much as I love this play, as much as when Henry yells “to the Breach” I’m typically moved to suit up in armor and charge, as much as the arc of the character and the touch of “Harry in the night” and the love scene at the end brings tears, in this production I was left cold. Slightly bored actually, despite the many things I learned about the show and the history from this point of view.

I’ve seen the play 5-6 times in the last 15 years and it is one of those that makes my heart swell and the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was so puzzling why I felt indifferent. Other films of theater productions have been stunning. So I don’t think that was the problem. But neither my date or I could figure out how we could possibly feel like we just left a history class.

Art is complex, but clearly determined to be worth the trouble looking at all its history and how people have fought to make it and to save it. At its best it is truth-seeking. But its making, its immediate effects, its lasting resonance all not easy to grasp. The day, the environment, the traffic even, the mood of the audience can all have an effect on how it’s received. Our subject matters. Our study matters. Practice matters. The quality and quantity of our media and tools can make a difference. But they don’t make art. So what is it that resounds? –The endless question….

Matisse said “Exactitude is not truth”. For him the job of the painter was to leave the essentials of the subject on the canvas. (Perhaps this is why after an all-day painting session he would have his assistant wipe out what he had done only to start with the same model, and the same setting again the next day. It was how he searched for the essential.) So who’s to say what is essential, what is truth and where is the meaning? The artist?   The audience? The critic? The “purse”? The answer lies in a cocktail of the first two—the latter be damned.

The mixture is a mystery. We know the artist must not create to please the audience, however the audience for the painter, just like in theater, in writing and music, completes a circuit—the connection that illuminates. It is mercurial, it is a kind of magic that requires imagination, a desire to express and belief in the process.  As the chorus in Henry V says: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention, …. behold…”

Once more, to the breach!

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More Than the Sum of its Parts

A visit to the Portland Art Museum this week began with a terrific visual assault of towering walls covered in  19th century style, oversized wall paper. These walls are then covered with paintings, hung salon style, from the museum’s collection. They refer to the rich bounty of the Oregon Territory. In the center of the huge Schnitzer Gallery are multiple sculptures combined to create a new sculpture. The whole thing is a giant assemblage of museum images and this incredible wallpaper inspired in some sense by Oregon’s origins.

A quote from the Oregon Trail introduces the idea of the artists David Allen Burns and Austin Young: “…I was upon the summit of a tall mountain which commands a bewildering prospect of that loved valley… The birds of autumn caroled their soft melodies around, and the blushing flowret bent at the feet of the intruder… Away to the north was the smoke wreathing above the trees which clustered around the lone mission-house and I thought there was an altar to God, and incense from the bosom of the wilderness.” —Excerpt from A Sketch of the Oregon Territory, or Emigrant’s Guide, Philip L. Edwards, 1842.

So poetic.

As I was leaving that gallery to view the Seeing Nature exhibit, I overheard an older “him” say to “her”—“for a small, po-dunk town like Portland, this is a really nice museum.”


The Allen Collection, Seeing Nature, is stunning. It will move on from Portland to the Phillips Collection in Washington DC and then to Seattle. See it while you can. It is also poetic. But there is an interesting side note to the exhibition that is also one of Paul Allen’s (and my) interests—how the brain sees and interprets the visual world. There is a 5.30-minute video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-7mO2FhaVE&sns=em that is worth a look before you go.

Both of these exhibits speak to the complex makeup of the visual arts. The formal elements, which are necessary for the viewer to grab onto the vision and the conceptual context, which provides meaning, are presented in a rich weave of ideas. Back and forth. Back and forth. Yum. The heart and soul that make up the “Duende”– the complex, mercurial element that elevates the work, pulsates in the halls.

There’s a third exhibit that one visit couldn’t handle. Needless to say I’m going back soon.

A day of beauty, ideas, poetry, heart and soul—more than the sum of its parts.

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Nice Hat You’re wearing.

That statement is a compliment—praise, approval, kudos, etc. Blue and orange, violet and yellow, red and green—they are complements. In traditional color theory it is considered that they make a balance. Think of the color wheel with a pencil going through a hole in the center. When the colors on opposite sides of the color wheel are weighted the same, the wheel stays in balance. (Not wholly scientific, but a good visual.)

Complementary colors are not necessarily colors that “look good together”, although they usually do. They are colors that can cancel each other out. When each color/hue of the same value and saturation are mixed with each other, they create a neutral. Conversely, when placed next to each other, the cones in the retina are stimulated equally by the light waves from complementary colors making it difficult to focus on them at the same time causing the optical effect of vibration. (This is actually much more complex than I’m describing, but for our purposes, it’s enough.) You can use this reaction to manipulate the effect of your visual message, to draw attention to different parts of the composition or to create bold, vibrant pictures. In short, complementary colors make things “pop”.

Color theory is extremely complex and not necessary to understand. But it’s handy to know the effects color can have if you haven’t truly played around with its interactions before.

Josef Albers (the pioneer of understanding color interaction): “In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually. To this end, the beginning is not a study of color systems. “

[Interaction of Color and our class] “…places practice before theory, which after all, is the conclusion of practice. … Just as the knowledge of acoustics does not make one musical — neither on the productive nor on the appreciative side — so no color system by itself can develop one’s sensitivity for color.”.

From Pantonne: Color is light and light is energy. Scientists have found that actual physiological changes take place in human beings when they are exposed to certain colors. Colors can stimulate, excite, depress, tranquilize, increase appetite and create a feeling of warmth or coolness. This is known as chromodynamics.

So we continue to play with color—this time using a complementary color scheme. Bring your ideas for a subject or come early enough to find one in the studio.

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Am I Blue?

Well, no. But Billie Holiday, who wrote the song of the same title, was much of the time and so was Picasso, at least for a certain period—his “Blue Period”.

As a young, just-moved-to Paris-artist, Picasso found himself broke and relying on a fellow Spaniard, his good friend Carlos Casagemas, for companionship and support. Casagemas took his life in a Paris café by shooting himself in the right temple on February 17, 1901.

Picasso had traveled back to Barcelona early that year and was not in town when the suicide happened. Surprisingly, his work of that spring and summer was actually quite vibrant. But as fall hit so did a severe depression. And, as some art history legend has it, Picasso, after realizing that Casagemas’ death was a reaction to unrequited love, still took up residence in his friend’s former apartment and began a liaison with his friend’s lover. (He might have been suffering a little guilt.)

The point is that Picasso chose to use a predominantly monochromatic color scheme for almost four years as a way of emphasizing emotional content. He was probably the first artist to do so. Monet, whose obsession with the study of light would simplify his pallet in an effort to understand, but Picasso used the color blue, just as Billie Holiday meant it.

Picasso’s Blue Period was followed by his Rose Period which represents more pleasant themes depicted in cheery, hues of red, orange and pinks. Over this seminal period of Blue and Rose Periods, lasting over five years, Picasso made a statement about the power of color to communicate emotion. And the art world listened.

This week I propose a challenge of working monochromatically. Not only is it a great way to develop mood and content, it is a great way to learn about value, among other things. From Wikipedia: “Monochromatic colors are all the colors (tints, tones, and shades) of a single hue.

Example of a monochromatic color scheme

Monochromatic color schemes are derived from a single base hue and extended using its shades, tones and tints. Tints are achieved by adding white and shades and tones are achieved by adding a darker color, gray or black.

Monochromatic color schemes provide opportunities in art and visual communications design as they allow for a greater range of contrasting tones that can be used to attract attention, create focus and support legibility.

The use of a monochromatic color provides a strong sense of visual cohesion and can help support communication objectives through the use of connotative color. The relative absence of hue contrast can be offset by variations in tone and the addition of texture.[1]

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Picture This

“Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.” Plutarch

I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. William Wordsworth

All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea, swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,… Elizabeth Bishop

You are beautiful and faded Like an old opera tune Played upon a harpsichord; Or like the sun-flooded silks Of an eighteenth-century boudoir. Amy Lowell

…but that night, I drove home alone

with nothing swinging in the cage of my heart…   Billy Collins

“Words, words, words” Hamlet simply replies when asked what he is reading. As one who created countless vivid visions in this one, incredible, four-hour play, Shakespeare likely delighted in repeating the word “word” to emphasize the power of words.

Re-read the snippets of poetry above and allow the images to bubble up and wash over you.

In the movie Words and Pictures a literary professor and an art professor battle to see which is a more effective medium of communicating meaning—words or paint. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/movies/juliette-binoche-brings-own-art-to-words-and-pictures.html?_r=0)

The question I play with is: can you paint words? And how many ways are there to do that?

As many of you know when my poet/painter friend, Beverly Partridge died I endeavored to feel closer to her by using her verbal imagery as the basis for each painting in my next exhibition. It was challenging to take a phrase like “everything was tucked in for winter” and allow an image to emerge and then paint it. Sometimes I had to find a resource that looked like what her words described. Sometimes I just kept moving paint around until I felt a prick in the solar plexus and a connection was felt.

Another approach would have been to actually use the physical words as part of the imagery like Larry Rivers, ( http://www.larryriversfoundation.org/press.html ), or John Baldessari. ( https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/john-baldessari-what-is-painting-1966-68 ), or Jean-Michel Basquiat (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Michel_Basquiat ), who utilized words as commentary in their art making.

Then there is Cy Twomley, who served in the U.S. army as a cryptologist. He used the graphic marks of handwriting as “medium” in much of his work. Wikipedia- “His paintings of large-scale, freely scribbled, calligraphic and graffiti-like works on solid fields of mostly gray, tan, or off-white colors are in the permanent collections of most of the museums of modern art around the world…” (http://www.cytwombly.info/ )

In honor of Wordstock this week, held for one day only at the Portland Art Museum, (http://www.literary-arts.org/what-we-do/wordstock/schedule-of-events/), I propose we again think about words, pictures and paint and see what comes up. As you go about the day, notice the shapes of letters and groups of words. Take time to read twice any phrase that offers up a picture. Envision playing with letters and words in unconventional ways to facilitate resonant imagery. Notice how different handwriting communicates differently—we all can imagine something about the person who dots their “I’s” with circles or hearts. Or the person who carefully takes time to form each letter compared to those who scribble wildly.

Whatever approach you choose, in the words of William Wordsworth be prepared to: “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”

(For more on Plutarchhttp://www.livius.org/articles/person/plutarch/)

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“Dance As If No One Is Watching!”

It’s clichéd now, but when I first saw this bit of philosophy on a decorative sign it seemed pretty profound, especially because it was in the studio of a good friend who grew up in an era when “good girls” aimed to please and did not call attention to themselves.  She is one of the smartest, most attractive people I’ve ever known–a true artist–yet she spent a lot of energy reigning in her own uniqueness for fear of offending or overstepping or not measuring up.

Sure, we all know what it means. But when have any of us ever engaged in an expressive, creative act without being influenced by the thought of someone seeing what we’re doing or what we’ve done? I can say, honestly, that I haven’t done much painting, drawing, etc. without being aware that either a fellow-artist, a gallery, a collector or teacher would eventually be seeing my work. And I wonder what I might have done differently if I really approached my work for any length of time with no regard for an eventual viewer. When are we not “performing”? (I intend to investigate this in my “new life”.)

As our work is forming, developing and emerging, reaction from colleagues can inform in ways we could never begin to know left on our own. It can enlighten, expand and edify, adding to our graphic, pictorial and painterly sophistication. And although creating without expectations from others, or even ourselves, is a paramount goal, can we actually do it?

I propose that every now and again when we have “free play” we do it freely, as if no one will EVER see the work produced. That doesn’t mean that you can’t actually show and sell what you’ve created, but for one night we “paint as if no one is looking”. So this week is “free play” in that vein.

The Pacific Standard—“According to research, play can relieve stress, boost creativity, improve brain function, and improve our relationships with other people by fostering trust with others…. There are three main characteristics that we tend to use when we talk about play: It’s voluntary in the sense that you’re not obligated to do it; it’s flexible and can be changed or manipulated, like Play-Doh; and it’s enjoyable and fun.”

Each class this week will be a “free play” class. There will be a talk back. But we won’t put the work up on the wall, we’ll just hear reactions to the process. It could be interesting….

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