Thursday, July 31, 2008

Unexpected Treasure

The cousins from Nebraska quickly caught on to my fascination with calligraphic marks and graffiti, so when I started climbing up the staircase at Boldt Castle in the Thousand Islands, a stop on our Uncle Sam boat tour, every cousin I ran into on their way down the stairs enthusiastically urged me to keep going up to the top floor to see the graffiti. Boldt Castle lay vacant for years before the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority took ownership and embarked on preserving and refurbishing the beautiful landmark in 1977. You can read about its romantic and tragic history at

For decades, boaters had stopped at the abandoned building, had parties on the grounds -- and left a remarkable amount of graffiti on every wall. The majority of the ceilings, walls and floors have been cleaned and restored with beautiful woodwork and the rococo plasterwork that was popular at the turn of the century. While the restoration work is impressive, more exciting to my artistic side were the amount of marks that remained on these walls and the sheer volume of layered signatures that comprised them.

Names and dates as far back as 1937 and as recent as 2007 fill every surface. If you consider all these layers of signatures and then imagine an entire four story castle filled with such marks, the vast number of people who visited the space and left their signatures and messages over the years becomes truly amazing.

I couldn't help but appreciate how fascinating the layers of text, the different styles and types of handwriting were as well as the pops of bright color on the layers of black and white.

Note the broad strokes painted on this surface with drips running down.

The marks left by the elements on the plaster wall surfaces have created a language of their own as well, one that almost appeared to have been carved into the surfaces. They too have a gestural quality that forms a wonderfully pleasing repetitive pattern.

I mentioned in an earlier post that inspirations creep in wherever we are and whatever we are doing once we are attracted to a particular subject. Seeing the faint earlier writings covered by additional layers of writing, the variations in scale, the broad strokes of paint brushes over layers of pencil created numerous combinations that form amazing compositions. How's that for a bit of inspiration to help transition me back from vacation mode to the studio?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Working in a Series: More Thoughts

There's a lot to think about when we begin to develop a framework for the investigation and exploration that goes into a series. Most of what we need to consider are the ideas we wish to express and explore ways to communicate them visually. When we take a photograph of a bird, it is usually because we admire its beauty, the coloration of its feathers, the differences in this particular bird from other birds, its uniqueness. We can take thousands of beautiful photographs of birds because we love them and respond to them. However, when we decide to incorporate a bird or birds in our art, we enter into some additional considerations. We are not only looking at the structure and patterns and form of the bird, we are also considering what thoughts or ideas that bird may represent.

One of the first ways to approach the subject of "bird" would be to explore it scientifically. We could study the bone structure and physiology of birds, familiarize ourselves with their habits and history and record the similarities and differences in their infinite variety of sizes, shapes and colors. We could learn about their migratory patterns, their reproductive cycles, the challenges they face for survival as a species.

In addition, the artist could begin to research how images or birds have been incorporated into various human cultures. Native American pictographs and Egyptian hieroglyphs include bird images. Myths and legends involving birds abound in ancient cultures -- people turning into birds, birds that can take human form, birds that immolate and then are reborn from their own ashes are just a few examples.

An additional inquiry about birds might be how artists have used the bird as a visual symbol. Dead game birds were often included in 19th century still life paintings. Picasso's dove paintings are universally recognized. Poets and writers have often used the bird symbolically -- consider Poe's raven as an example. Then consider what the bird represents to you and how you might communicate that feeling as a visual image. Would it be a realistic or abstracted bird, the complete image or just the suggestion of "birdness" with a wing or feather?

As one gathers knowledge and information, the potential for exploring this subject becomes increasingly vast and complex and can seem overwhelming. But allow yourself to feel overwhelmed for a bit. Out of the Mt. Everest of information, some images and ideas will begin to fire your imagination and move to the forefront of your thoughts. Those are the ones you seize on and begin to flesh out in your sketch or notebook.

Just writing the above, my imagination is most charged by the idea of stripping away the colors and patterns of various birds and working with the tiny skeletal structures. To me, stripping away is an appealing concept at the moment because it seems to echo my desire to get beyond the surface and reveal the bones or structure within a subject.

So the process begins with gathering information, opening ourselves to a vast array of ideas from various directions and sources and then sifting and sorting though them to the ones that excite us the most. This enables us to begin to narrow our inquiry and select specific attributes of our subject that we wish to explore visually.

That also means our exploration and discovery are ongoing and we will begin to notice references to and information about birds everywhere. Our radar will be attuned to the subject and our reference base will continue to widen. We'll find ourselves noticing how birds appear in places like advertisements, in children's books and stories, in old movies, in novels, etc. etc.

Clearly "bird" is a vast subject, but as we explore it we will also sort and define, sort again and redefine. Eventually we will make a choice to start with certain elements of "bird" as a design theme and by making that choice, we will move quietly to a more inward investigation and move away from ceaseless research and references. The huge river will branch into more navigable streams. The first step is to place a toe in the water and begin creating. Ripples will move outward from that first action and attract a response; action initiates the process of expressing an artistic response to "bird" as a subject for artistic enquiry.

Note: I won't be posting for the next week; we're hosting a big family reunion. Close to 30 of my husband's Nebraska cousins and spouses are arriving tonight and we'll be taking them on a whirlwind tour of upstate New York, starting with Niagara Falls and ending up on the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands. But of course my mind will still be gathering impressions, sorting and sifting ideas -- so even when we are not actually MAKING art, we are in the process!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Creating Components for Series

Here is a peek at the first layer of a silkscreened length of fabric that I hope will evolve into one of the next Parables pieces. While I'm still working with a range of grays and blacks, I've lightened the palette and thrown in a warm tone. This piece will hang in my studio until I decide what to do next to develop a composition.

While the heat and humidity rose through the weekend and finally turned into thunderstorms and good, soaking rains, I spent three full days at my dye studio silkscreening and then monoprinting, trying some different marks on the fabric surfaces that suggest written marks and/or "pages" to me.

This is an example of one of the pieces that I monoprinted with thickened dyes rolled on Plexiglas. An old piece of plastic construction fencing serves as a resist. Repeating the printing process while removing the plastic and manipulating the dyes created other variations to which I'll add additional layers of dyes or paints.

I got so absorbed in the variations this simple process created that I just kept printing, grabbing piece after piece of any kind of silk I could find laying around. These will all get steamed tomorrow and then I'll hang them up and decide which ones to add more layers to and what those layers might be.

It felt wonderful to have the space and time to work continuously over the three days, especially after the stimulation of teaching last week. One artist friend visited me at lunch time on Friday and gave me a trunk show of fabrics she's dyed and printed and some of the garments she's making them into, which provided yet more creative stimulation. Then another good friend came in on Saturday and worked on my second print table to silkscreen some fabric and work on ideas for a new series.

One of my growing realizations is not only how an individual's commitment to work in a series creates a structure and framework for artistic exploration, but how it also actually creates a feeling of expansion rather than confinement.

Creative minds can be restless, responding continuously to all the visual stimulation that abounds around us -- leading us to jump from one subject and process to another and another. While exploring techniques is richly satisfying, exploring them in relation to a particular theme or subject informs the explorations much more. And the results, rather than leading down a new trail, widen the one we're already on. Everything starts to connect and fit together, sometimes in exciting new ways, sometimes in familiar ones. Even a slight twist can make a huge impact on how the piece "reads", how the work communicates to an audience.

Small changes can be just as significant and interesting as huge, sweeping ones. Perhaps creative people tend to be like kids with their hands in the cookie jar, trying to grab fistfuls and stuff them in their mouths all at once. In contrast, working in a series encourages the artist to savor each bite, allowing a full appreciation of the flavor and texture of each one before moving on to the next.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Stoking the Embers

I taught experimental textile painting to a full class this week at the Memorial Art Gallery's Creative Workshop. We met for three afternoon sessions in a row, which turned out to be just the right amount of time to explore some new techniques and not tire any of us out too much. David, above, has taken drawing classes in school and came to the class to experiment with color and painting techniques. He was one of three teenagers in the class; they were terrific additions to the group and tried everything.
Terry is newly retired and loves layering colors and patterns on fabric. She took classes from me five years ago when I was teaching at my studio - yikes, what a reminder of how fast the years fly by. She brought in some great small works with multiple layers that were really intriguing. A fellow layerist!

This is the area we set up for wax resist. These quilting hoops that Isabel is using worked great as an aid for stretching fabrics before applying soy wax with brushes and tjanting tools. I already knew Isabel was a talented weaver, but didn't realize until this class what a wonderful eye she has for color.

Debbie experimented with a variety of techniques the first two days and then became totally absorbed in painting a lovely floral arrangement the final day.

Here is Mattie working back into this softly blended, dried surface with small brushes and thicker paints to flesh out the details. These circular shapes are really starting to develop depth and interest.
Charmaine on the left and Barb in the background also created numerous lovely samples with a variety of color combinations and techniques. Charmaine created several pieces like the one on the table by pleating fabric and waxing with a kitchen tool over the folded edges. The pattern fragments when you open the fabric; an idea that has multiple variations. Barb, in the background, uses a stretcher frame that can adjust to different size fabrics. Neat little hooks attach to the frame with rubber bands that grab the fabrics to secure them.

Dawn loves expressionist painting and gestural calligraphy as much as I do. She has a delicate, restrained hand and a very minimalist approach.

Somehow I missed getting Liz, Serena and Elena in camera range -- or else they were just really good at dodging me! One thing I was definitely aware of by the time the class ended is how excited I am now to return to my own studio and start working again. Today I unloaded all the supplies I had taken to class, got everything in my studio pretty well back in order and feel ready to really get back to work tomorrow. Even left myself a list of to-dos so I can dive right in from the moment I walk in the door.

I've also been working with Holly Knott for the past several weeks to redesign my website. My work has evolved over the past three years and I want the new site to reflect that. Hopefully it will only take a week or two longer to complete it and then you'll get a chance to look at it and decide what you think. I'm making a lot of changes to the content as well, since I plan to focus on applying for more solo exhibitions.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Desire, Contrast and Tension

In a variation of the Midas touch, without the ironic twist that you could never touch another human being (or possibly scratch an itch!), suppose that every creative idea you attempted to express worked out flawlessly? That your every effort was met with critical acclaim? That it required no real effort on your part to succeed beyond your wildest dreams?

I wonder how long I would stay committed to my visual art if I had this power? Or would I seek one new challenge and stimulation after another? Over the next year I might sculpt a new David, paint a new Mona Lisa, beat Tiger Woods at golf, dance with Alvin Ailey and then saunter off to Hollywood to write, produce, direct and star in my own Oscar winning film. Top it off with a Pulitzer prize-winning novel. Effortless, limitless creating. I admit it, it's tantalizing.

But is it just making everything we touch gold that we are really seeking? Or do we also fall in love with the practice and process of Getting There (wherever that may be)?

In visual art, contrast and tension are vital elements of good design. There's contrast and tension in the creative process as well. Try watching children really absorbed in play. They are seldom laid back and relaxed. Rather, they're active, bodies and minds engaged and in a state of high energy.

My creative times are filled with tension at well, not unpleasant, more like the tension that builds when an aerialist is somersaulting from one trapeze to another, when the gun fires and the gate opens in a horse race, when a figure skater leaps into the air to attempt a triple axle. It is a tension that comes from knowing there is a bridge to build between intention and actualization. At times the body, mind and spirit work together so effortlessly, so beautifully -- and the results of that focus, intention and action all come together to create stunning results. At other times, the horse stumbles and loses its stride, the figure skater falls, the aerialist misses the catch and drops into the net, but the repetition of these efforts over and over and over leads ultimately to accomplishment.

Artists may be less aware physically than figure skaters and acrobats of how much work and preparation go into accomplishment How many times do athletes fall as they practice, how many repetitions and refinements does it take to have the movements become so integral that they can appear to happen effortlessly?

When we watch a dance troupe and consider the incredible disciplined practice that goes into training a dancer's body, observe the nuance and gestural quality of the simplest movement, I think we can begin to appreciate how long it takes to develop a similar expertise in art making.

And yet I also believe that our desires and intentions do manifest. We can touch a surface and create gold. All we need to do is engage in that process of practice, commitment and setting our intentions. We can create anything that we are willing to work to manifest. And I believe that our eventual successes will give rise to new desires, new intentions and a new cycle of practice, work and growth. It's a delightful prospect to look at my daily efforts as preparation for my own Olympic Gold Medal moments, to feel a growing confidence and pleasure in my practiced techniques and recognize that I am ever more skilled at and knowledgeable about surface design and composition and creative process.

I can enjoy my never-ending curiosity that always leads me to my mischievous "what ifs" and mutter over the frequent failures that often ensue, but I'm more comfortable with failing now that I know it's just a part of getting to success.

A July 08 Reader's Digest article related the story of entrepreneur Sheri Schmelzer and how she developed Jibbitz, decorative accessories that fit into the holes in Croc shoes. Over a period of several years, Sheri worked through trial and error and a variety of challenges to create over 300 designs and built a retail customer base of more than 4,000 stores. In December 2006, Croc bought Jibbitz for $20 million, hiring both Sheri and her husband Rich to come on board and manage the product line. Please note that Sheri and Rich didn't retire to live on a Costa Rican beach. Sheri is the chief design officer of what is now a global business and seems to be thriving on the creative challenge of designing new products in the Jibbitz line. She turned a simple idea into gold -- and the gold seems to be secondary to her love of creating more new ideas!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Idea Catchers

Have you seen a Native American dream catcher?? It's a wrapped hoop with a woven "web" at its center, decorated with streamers, beads and feathers. The story goes that if you have one hanging where you sleep it will "catch" all the bad dreams in its web and only allow the pleasant ones to pass through.

I learned a while back that ideas need "catching" as well. Creative people seem to get periods where ideas flow faster than streams during a spring thaw -- and other times when the stream quiets down to a soft trickle. Hopefully you have a way to catch these treasures when your own inspirational stream starts flowing. I keep a variety of journals and sketchbooks -- yes simultaneously, although I didn't plan for it to happen that way. They allow me to get ideas down on paper as they arrive, whether en mass or just one at a time.

I started my creative life as a writer, so I kept composition notebooks at my side for journaling and wrote morning pages in them daily for over ten years. When I started learning visual art, some of the ideas I'd describe in words would make no sense to me when I returned to them later, so I bought a spiral bound sketchbook and started to draw out my ideas with some added notes. However, I was still too emotionally attached to my composition notebooks to give them up, so I kept writing and eventually drawing in them while also drawing and writing in my sketchbooks. The two seem to go with me everywhere in my tote -- I don't feel right if they aren't wherever I happen to be, so I carry them to and from my studio, my home office and sewing room. When I go on vacation anywhere, they go too.

However, neither the composition notebook nor spiral bound sketch book fit neatly into my purse for times when I didn't want to carry a tote bag. A three pack of thin moleskin sketchbooks at Borders were precisely the right size and weight to tuck into my purse.

If you're keeping count, that's now three places where I store ideas, but it doesn't stop there.
To create a log and practice journal for my language marks, I found a wonderful spiral bound drawing pad with a hard, black cover. Several times a week (although my good intentions were to do this daily), I experiment with letter forms and tools and record the marks. I want to create a whole library of marks as this idea of my own personal "language" develops. But this doesn't mean that I don't also record language marks in both my spiral bound notebook and sketchbooks.

Since I also collect inspiration from other artists and do research on the Internet, I have a big three ring binder and numerous file folders with magazine clippings, downloaded and printed articles and art references. Some of these get stapled or glued into a sketchbook, some just get placed in folders. And just for fun I keep another larger spiral sketchbook where I periodically clip and paste art works that trigger ideas in me for color combinations, texture, pattern or design ideas. This one has been ignored lately, but it's great fun to rip apart magazines and it entertains me when I don't feel like going to my studio and working!

It seems that I am curiously and very strongly emotionally attached to this eclectic assemblage of idea-capturing materials. Part of me longs for long rows of neatly organized sketch books, journals and reference materials on shelves that will precisely detail the progression of my work and development as an artist. In reality, I scribble and scrawl rather than draw or write attractively and jump around between the journal and sketchbooks. I will favor one for a while, then suddenly be drawn to record most of my ideas in another one for a bit -- hither and yon, in no particular linear order. What seems to be important is that they stay NEAR me -- I get almost frantic when I am separated from them for any length of time.

Now that I'm confessing, I also must confess that each time I go back through the pages of my sketchbooks or journals, I am AMAZED at the quantity of ideas, quotes, drawings, records that these small volumes contain -- most of which would make little to no sense to anyone but me. They are personal and sometimes totally unrelated. Sometimes they include notes from lectures I've attended, books I want to check out, website addresses-- sometimes I write appointments or phone numbers or personal affirmations in them as well. It's an amazing time capsule of my creative life and I find it fascinating to go back through them -- they've captured so many details that I would have totally forgotten if I hadn't taken the time to record them. Even if I don't keep ideas in just one place, the subjects and themes are so constant that moving back and forth between them isn't difficonfusing. Quite the opposite, it helps me see how all these bits and pieces intersect or connect.

When I reach the last page of one sketchbook or journal, I feel a little twinge of sadness, like reading the final page of a great book, but that turns into excitement again when I open a brand new one. It has the same tantalizing sensation of new beginnings that I feel every New Year's Eve.

As you may be well aware of by now, I am an advocate for EVERY creative person having some sort of system to record and store ideas. I'd love to hear what tools and methods work for you and whether you manage to have some sort of organization for this part of your artistic process.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Living with Your Back to the World

Agnes Martin/ Charles R. Rushton/Whitney Museum of Art

Well over a year ago I watched a New Art City DVD that featured an interview with Agnes Martin. Her words had a presence and clarity of thinking that captivated me. I wrote a lot of her statements down in my journal and yesterday I happened on to them again.

"I paint about happiness, innocence and beauty -- beauty is beyond the world."

"Life is built on knowing what you want. If you know, you'll get it."

"To do something creative you have to go slow. You have to be alone with nothing to do but wait and want."

"People that live by inspiration say, 'I have to sleep on it.' In the morning you know the answer. That's the way to live."

"Hold your mind open. I like to look for the truth -- stand with my back to the world."

Agnes' words remind me of the value of separating ourselves from the noise and confusion of contemporary life and finding a stillness within. A meditative quiet fills her works, primarily comprised of tight grids and repetitive linear marks drawn with graphite pencil.

I'm sorry, I just grabbed this image without getting the name and date it was made. You can google her name and find many images of her work.

Many of Agnes' pieces have strong horizontal lines. Horizontal lines suggest calmness and tranquility. To Agnes, these abstracted works were her landscape paintings. She felt that linear marks and geometric order captured the essence of nature better than organic shapes and lines.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating occurrences in Agnes' life is that just at the point she was becoming a successful artist in New York City, she gave away all her paint and canvas rolls, picked up and left and drove around the country for months in a pickup and camper. She stopped making art for seven years. Instead she moved to rural northern New Mexico and with her own hands built a small adobe house. When she finally returned to painting in 1974, she worked steadily until the end of her life.

Agnes also wrote poetry and kept journals of her thoughts. These were published in 1992 in a book called "Writings." Today I reminded myself that it's time to borrow a copy of that book from the library. The New York Times article that eulogized her when she died included a quote from the book. "One thing I like about Zen," she wrote. "It doesn't believe in achievement. I don't think the way to succeed is by doing something aggressive. Aggression is weak-minded."

In many ways, I feel myself retreating from the hustle and bustle of the achievement-oriented world the way that Agnes did. It's not out of disdain but from a powerful pull to tune in to something deeply personal that reveals itself best when I get quiet. Perhaps all artists need periods where we turn our backs to the world and focus on listening to the quiet but truthful images and ideas within us.