Sunday, August 31, 2008

Creative Focus and Mixing It Up

Like every other skill, lateral thinking is a matter of practice and willingness to be open to multiple ideas without censoring or trying to reach a desired outcome immediately. If you have always painted with a particular brand of watercolor on a particular brand of paper, the tendency of human nature is to continue to do so. That's the philosophy behind, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Be safe, do what you know best, enjoy your expertise. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that route, but eventually many creative people find themselves feeling unstimulated and stale with creating in exactly the same way each time.

Creativity is as much about the engagement and delight of the process as it is having a successful, predictable outcome. If that same watercolorist chose to work on a different type of paper, work with different brushes or brand of paints, employ different painting techniques or investigate a totally new and intriguing subject, they would be certainly feel uncomfortable at times -- but also find a challenge in mixing things up that could add excitement and freshness to both their subject matter and methods.

There's an opposite type of artist though, one who tries so many different techniques and ideas that they never seem to be able to follow through on any one thing. A fellow artist I know loves the part of creating that involves generating new ideas. They have enough ideas to last for several centuries and never seem to tire of adding more to the pile. They're forever leaping excitedly into new techniques and whole new mediums on the wave of a new idea, then abandoning the one they've been on for the next big wave.

It's wonderful to have an open mind and think laterally. But out of all the possible, delicious ways we can express our artistic nature, out of all the visual stimulation that we find informing and fascinating, out of all the research and references we find stirring and inspiring in the creative works of others, eventually we have to choose one idea and focus on it.

In order to move from idea to actualization, we have to commit to working through the creative process. We have to take action and we have to complete what we start, because it is through that process that we learn and develop our artistic "muscle". This is the "sweat" equity that is built into creating art. Much like a musician or dancer, who practices a particular piece of music or a dance routine over and over before performing it, the visual artist spends a considerable amount of dedicated time in contemplating and then executing an idea for the creative cycle to come to completion.

Focus doesn't just mean working on one single project from beginning to end. Some artists are more comfortable having several works in progress at one time. But it does mean working to a resolution of that idea -- even if the ultimate resolution is to fail and learn from that failure how to improve the next time.

Actualizing ideas is essential to growing as an artist. People often ask me when I'm going to switch from working on the Pages and Parables pieces. Perhaps they are already bored with my exploration. But the fact is, the longer I stay with this series, the more I refine my own voice as an artist, the more I find the subject challenges and stretches me, and the more confident I feel in my own artistic voice and direction.

I don't necessarily attribute this just to working in a series. What I do attribute it to is my choice to generate options and generate new ideas and ALWAYS maintain my commitment and focus on following through to a resolution. I can, do and will continue to make some works that are more exciting than others, but each idea I manifest is the muscle I build as an artist, the strength that moves me forward and makes every step invaluable, from the excitement of beginning to the discipline and sometimes sheer fortitude of completing.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Layering Process

Today's studio efforts enriched this piece, which first appeared in a previous blog post. When I first applied the dyes over the dried paste resist, the color ranges appeared quite different from the finished piece above. Note the subtle gray greens and tans below.Imagine my surprise after steaming this piece to go from these earth tones to soft blues! The reason for this is the age of the mixed dyes and the fact that I remembered (too late!) dumping a tiny bit of blue into the one dye paste mix thinking it was black (no glasses on!) Evidently the blue, being the freshest dye, bonded to the fibers; the rest washed away.The color beneath the resist patterns reappeared after it got rinsed out along with the new layer of dye. Luckily, I find the blue very appealing. There is a painterly quality to the piece at this stage that is most satisfying. It already has a lot of visual interest and complexity; what it needs now is to develop the composition.There are so many interesting detail areas on the surface of this piece and it could easily be divided and completed as a series of small framed works. However, for the time being I'll work on it as a whole composition and continue the layering process, preserving some of the blue with wax resist and possibly cut paper resists and working several shades of darker color over those. So far, this piece is shaping up to be both textural and engaging.

At home I'm cutting out new letterforms and contemplating another new idea, which is to create a loose grid on a white ground and compose flowing patterns of letterforms across this surface in shades and colors and sizes that will appear to recede and advance. Here is a very rough beginning -- throwing pieces up on the design wall is one of my forms of "sketching" and I have lots of leftover letterforms to play with and move around from the Pages piece I just finished. Even this rough beginning suggests possibilities and I'll return to my studio next to make more of this type of cloth for the ground fabric, which strongly appeals to me, but in the dimensions that fit my series, roughly 42" x 48" or 48" x 48."

An artist friend who is a painter visited my studio and commented that she is amazed at the amount of work that goes into my pieces. Although I enjoy painting with acrylics on canvas, there is something about layering and printing with dyes and paints on a textile surface that resonates with me aesthetically. Perhaps it is because cloth is so malleable, so adaptable to a multitude of processes. It can be sculpted, painted, draped, worn, hung on a wall, cast in bronze, burned, buried, stitched, wrapped, stretched and framed, among other options.

Choice of a medium is a question of artistic fit. Did Kara Walker set out to work with cut paper silhouettes? Or did the choice of materials evolve in service to her concept? In contemporary art, various materials have been appropriated from every source and are being used by artists. Every type of material imaginable can and is being altered, combined or constructed into simple or elaborate works. Artists translate ideas into form; their choice of materials and mediums are no longer limited to drawing, painting and sculpture, although many contemporary artists still work in those mediums. It truly is a new frontier for cultural definitions about what is art.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Pat on the Back and Back in the Saddle

It took hours upon hours and days and days to complete the Pages piece, a much longer time than I had planned for or anticipated. At times I grew physically tired, at times a bit frustrated in my drive to deliver it when I promised it, but always felt a motivating energy that kept me going. Once I delivered the piece to the University yesterday, I walked out the door and felt a huge release of tension. I had done what I had set out to do and felt tremendously proud of myself for having completed and delivered it in plenty of time for it to be installed before classes start in September. My friend Marcia took me out to lunch to celebrate the sale of the piece and kept me company for the delivery.

When I was nearing the end of making the piece and riding that wave of fatigue, I kept my spirits up with fantasies of all kinds of rewards for completing the work. A trip to the New England coast, a Toronto musical, serious couch time for reading, long, slow walks along creeks in the sunshine -- but here I am the very next day starting two new pieces!

I hopped out of bed at 6 AM this morning (truth be told I did go to bed at 9 last night after dozing on the couch for an hour!) and have been zooming around ever since. We went out for breakfast and strolled through the local farmer's market. I came home and cleaned and vacuumed the upstairs rooms, did laundry and made a blueberry cobbler. I put some fabric up on my design wall and whoosh! -- two ideas popped in to start working on. Then I looked at the clock. It was only 2 PM!!

As soon as that fabric went up on the design wall, I felt the artistic gears reengage and begin moving again. So there's the reward for my hard work, to be able to start into the process all over again!! -- and truth is, what could be more enticing than a new project? I thrive on the challenges and problems of translating ideas into form. There is almost no place that I would rather be than be in my studio or sewing room listening to music, singing along at times at the top of my lungs and leaping my way through the "what ifs" and "why nots" and "uh-ohs" and "ah-hahs." Life is good!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Final Laps

I'm well past the halfway mark on the "new and improved" Pages 3 -- the horizontally stitched segments have all been joined into the whole piece and now I can stitch all the vertical lines that will create the supporting threadwork grid -- my own version of engineering a suspension system!! As the above photo suggests, there is still a lot of stitching ahead to complete today but at this stage it seems to move along quickly.

Happily all the letterforms are cut out and waiting. Once the vertical lines of stitching are all on, I can compose them on the surface and attach them.

I'm envisioning completing this work easily and quickly. I love the way it's coming together and enjoy envisioning it hanging in its new home, where the high ceilings will provide the perfect space for it to be displayed.

So much is running through my mind as I work that relate to my directions as an artist, my desires and dreams for the future, changes I want to make in my workshop offerings, etc etc.

It's an excellent time to reflect on my artistic life, my goals and what is truly important to me. I know that as I carefully consider and select what I choose to unfold in my life, I am setting strong intentions that will attract these desired results to me. An ongoing process of choosing and manifesting lies ahead and it is exciting to build on the experiences of fulfillment I've had to choose what I most desire to see manifest in my life next.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

One Thing Leads to Another

I'm in cutting mode again. I need to deliver the Pages 3 piece to the U of R library this Thursday and made the choice to recreate a nearly identical piece rather than hang the existing one. The library is respecting my decision, even though they were happy with the original work. However, because this sheer, constructed piece will be hanging in a public space where hundreds of students will be moving past it day in and day out, I want to recreate it with many more lines of stitching to support it for a very active, public environment.

I've been dyeing yards and yards of new fabric in a variety of combinations to recreate just the right shade of gray. Since I work intuitively, I don't keep detailed notes on my dye combinations, so I was delighted and relieved when I finally captured the same gray as the previous piece has. The other yardage will be wonderful beginnings for future pieces. Yesterday I screenprinted and started cutting the yardage into the tiny rectangles. Today I'll complete all the cutting and start gluing the individual pieces to the water soluble fabric.

Since the piece will be hanging on a green wall rather than a white or gray one, I also have decided to make matching gray hanging sleeves for this piece. I don't like the look of the white hanging sleeve behind the gray pieces, particularly because the library wall where it will be installed is a deep green rather than white.
It will be interesting to see what impact a colored wall behind the work will have on it. I'm also adding a sleeve and rod at the bottom of the piece so it will hang straight down and not billow as students walk by. In the gallery exhibition, shown above, the pieces were hung lower and folded on the floor. The library wants to hang it higher and off the floor. I'm sure these types of small refinements will strengthen the series as it progresses.

Meanwhile, even as I'm working non-stop to get this piece finished and installed by Thursday,
synchronicity keeps bringing offerings to my doorstep to broaden my wealth of reference material and crystallize some new directions and steps. The bookmaking class provided some new structures to consider for my work plus new artists to research, both contemporary and 20th century ones.

Also, this week's mail brought a second issue of a publication called "Letter Arts Review" that I subscribed to several months ago. It's available through -- and while it's expensive, it's proving to be a valuable resource for discovering other artists working with letterforms and calligraphy. The very first article in "Letter Arts Review" begins with a quote from Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche: "It is possible to make a brush stroke that expresses your whole life."

How can I help but continue to think about language marks and their powerful expressiveness while I am working on meeting this deadline for next week?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

New Stimulation and Motivation

Each morning I wake up to two subscriber "motivational" messages in my inbox, one from the Abraham group (see and the other from

This morning the second motivational message asked: "A question to ask yourself each morning, Jeanne, that really lights fires, gongs bells, and summons resources is, 'What little, mortal, baby steps can I take today that will demonstrate expectancy, prepare for my dream's manifestation, and above all, place me within reach of life's magic?' "

These daily doses of uplifting reminders help me refocus and recharge my positive attitude. I believe in the law of attraction and how important it is to set our intentions for what we desire to attract in our lives. Olympic athletes know how powerful the tools of focus, setting intentions and visualization can be in achieving desired results. Gold medal winners are made, not born, and every story of Olympic success emphasizes the hours and hours each day that each athlete spends in practicing and honing their skills. Nobody makes it to the Olympics just because they have talent.

So, in the Olympic spirit, I work to place myself within reach of life's magic. Every day I notice how the people and opportunities I'm attracting are increasingly more harmonious with the desires that I have for my artistic life. I focus on the positive and then each day include action steps -- even if they are tiny ones -- that move me closer towards making my dreams a reality.

Today will be my second afternoon as a student in the basic bookmaking class. We're a small but interesting group -- a retired philosophy professor who wants to repair and maintain his book collection, an engineer who wants to bind his own dissertation, a PhD student in library science and a librarian who loves books and is taking a week off to from work to enjoy books from a different perspective.

Yesterday we learned how to accordion, concertina and flag fold using copy paper. We did several basic stitching techniques with waxed linen thread to hold signatures (a folded set of four pieces of paper) together. While the precision involved in folding makes me hold my breath at times, our instructor -- Marlene Seidman -- is great at easing us step by step into the basics.

My artist self thrives on creative connections that stimulate my imagination. Experimenting with stitching or constructing simple book forms is like a ballroom dancer trying hip hop-- it throws me into the tension of the unfamiliar, challenges me to think in a different medium and use new materials.

Here's a simple but wonderful piece by gestural calligrapher Viviana Lombrozo -- -- that inspired me to sign up for the bookmaking class. Her work appeared on Monica Dengo's website. I hope to take a class with Monica next year; she offers one each fall in Italy (hmmmm,pretty appealing location for a class!) I fell in love with her work the first time I visited her website:

The class I'm taking this week locally is an opportunity for me to experiment with simple book forms as possible structures for future Pages pieces. While I love working in surface design on textiles, I am increasingly drawn to mixed media applications for the processes that I use. It also intrigues me to combine working in very large formats with very small. These are ideas that play at the edges of my thoughts in connection with letterform imagery as I learn to wield my bone folder for sharp creases and use a clam knife to separate pages.

Everything we make this week will be blank pages. That in itself is a fascinating concept, the blank page -- allowing us to contemplate what images or texts they might hold in the future.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Unexpected Rewards

The August 08 issue of Surface Design Journal has been published and is now available on newstands -- it contains the article, "Traces of the Past: Four Dutch Artists Respond to Place", that I wrote about an exhibition this past fall in a seaside Dutch fort. Els van Baarle had shared images with me two years ago of her first exhibit at the fort. Its architecture touched me as deeply as it did Els when she first visited the fort. The idea of making work in response to a place -- actually considering place as an integral element in the subject matter and presentation of art works-- intrigued me. So did the challenges of exhibiting in a space open to the elements, particularly the salty sea air and moisture. I wanted very much to travel to the Netherlands and see the exhibition but that wasn't possible and Cherilyn and Els had to cancel our planned interview in the States in June last year when Els' husband passed away, so we did our interviews via e-mail over a number of months.

Corresponding with four very different and talented, fascinating women was, as it always is, the reward that offsets the labor of drafting, revising and polishing a multitude of information into a finished, cohesive article. When the final draft and images went to Journal editor Patrica Malarcher in February, I breathed an expected sigh of relief and returned to my own work. I had done my best and felt pleased to be able to help good artists get more recognition; I didn't have any other expectations.

So, imagine my total surprise and delight when shortly after completing the article, I began receiving packages in the mail from the Netherlands!

Els' arrived first. I have been debating for a year now about including some three dimension works in my Pages series. I am intrigued by bookmaking but the precision I associated with it always made me keep my distance. Els' wonderful piece is beautifully crafted but not stitched or drilled. Long accordion "pages" fan out when opened from the recycled book cover that holds them. I love the way the book can be opened and posed in a variety of ways.

The accordion pages offer great flexibility for display, and are inspiring me to take an introductory bookmaking class next week to explore some basic, simple book forms that might provide an interesting contrast to the larger, hanging pieces in my letterforms series.

Then Cherilyn Martin's package arrived while I was out of town. It got buried for a while in the piles of catalogues and magazines that always build while I'm away, but eventually I found it and opened it. Another touching moment. This 8" x 8" deliciously textural work has the most delightful, tiny red stitching accents and of course, the illuminated letter form on the upper right. It reminds me a great deal of the work she did for the exhibition.

A short time later another small package arrived, this time from Cora de Kok, containing a stunning piece of wearable art, a stitched organza and metallic organza scarf with stitched edges that trail off the fabric and form interesting, twisting extensions.

I still am overwhelmed with appreciation each time I look at these gifts. I display them proudly where I can see them every day. I've written about many artists over the years and never expect to receive anything from them for writing profiles, and the surprise in being gifted with these pieces makes having them so much more uplifting. The generosity of Els and Cherilyn and Cora is a reminder to me of the strength and connectedness of fiber artists -- even when we speak different languages and live in different parts of the world, the love of the medium connects us.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Pump Up The Volume

I seem to be rebuilding my work momentum now that summer activities are winding down and September is just three weeks away. Not that I haven't been working steadily all summer, but it's been interspersed with cottage weekends, clambakes and mini-getaways. My creative burner, that was on simmer, is heating up. I'm climbing back into the frying pan and kicking up the temperature on my artistic production. I'm back to writing lists of goals and action items and establishing intentions for this next year in my artistic life. There's a lot going on in my head and as much if not more bursting out in every art-related space in my home.

Walk in the den and you'll see my evening "relaxation" -- I'm back to stitching at the end of the day. I'm back to work on completing this second painted embroidery that will be framed to sell. Target date on those two is the end of this month. Hopefully some day I'll get better about organizing my embroidery threads -- for now, they get shoved into plastic storage bags and plastic bins and tend to become a tangled mess when I start working on a project, even a small one like this. I have purchased some great little organizers for embroidery threads, problem is that I don't actually use them! And when I separate strands, the colors end up in little nests of two, four and six strand bits and lengths that end up sticking to whatever I'm wearing and dropping in the strangest places around the house. I could be more organized -- hey couldn't we all -- but that takes more time than I'm willing to invest at the moment. Still, someday I might get a handle on my embroidery habits and keep track of the threads better!

Then there's the fifth Pages piece, now underway, which looks pretty somber and Plain Jane at this stage. Once I finished dyeing, printing, cutting and gluing the pages pieces --this time they're much larger, 2.5" x3.5"-- to the water soluble fabric, I sandwiched them beneath another layer of water soluble, pinned and started stitching all the horizontal rows. Because this piece is going to have at least one additional layer of elements added to this construction and possibly two, I am completing all the stitching to hold it together first before I add the more interesting design elements to the piece.

Can't forget to note that there's dyeing and printing that's been going on in the studio too. No additional pictures of those for you, I forgot to take my camera with me today. But in every direction I've got new work in progress.

When I'm here in my office at my computer, I'm still working with Holly on the redesign of my website, which is coming along slowly as I debate some major changes and hopefully will be up and live by September. And I'm settling back in to writing blogs two to three times a week. It all seems to be a sure sign that September is on its way and my "back to school" mentality from childhood is still ingrained in my psyche!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Writings of Agnes Martin

"Martin, Agnes, "I Love The Whole World," 1999. Acrylic and graphite on canvas.

On Friday, I finally picked up the books I ordered through inter-library loan at our local college. Agnes Martin: Paintings and Writings, a catalogue published in 2000 by the prestigious Pace-Wildenstein gallery in New York City, combines ideas about artmaking that Agnes put into writing with 15 paintings completed in 1999. All the works are acrylic and graphite on canvas, all are 60" x60" and have titles like "Happiness-Glee", "I Love Love", "Innocent Love" and "Lovely Life." Agnes always painted in a square format -- in her younger years she worked in a 80" x 80" format, but as she aged the larger canvases became too difficult for her to manage and she shifted to the 60" x 60" size.

At the time this exhibition and catalogue were produced, Agnes was 87 years old. In the final years of her life, she lived in a retirement home in Taos, NM, but still drove to her studio every day to work. The paintings in this exhibition are different in coloration from Agnes' earlier works, which were mainly shades of gray and white with her characteristic hand drawn graphite lines. These later works introduce muted pastel washes of earth red and sky blue, greens and yellows. Nancy Doyle's profile of the artist at suggests that these colors may be Agnes' response to the white desert light and the colors of the earth in the southwest.

Even as I started reading the essays interspersed between the images of the paintings, I noticed Martin's writing is as spare and condensed as her painting. Like her art, her writing seems to contain a wealth of insight distilled from experience into each statement. In the essay, "What We Do Not See If We Do Not See," Agnes declares that she wanted to "live a true life." Living this true life meant seeing the joyfulness in reality, maintaining an awareness of beauty, innocence and happiness because without them she believed one could not make works of art.

In the essay "What is Real?", written in 1976, Agnes wrote, " Works of art have successfully represented our response to reality from the beginning. The artist tries to live in a way that will make greater awareness of the sublimity of reality possible. Reality, the truth about life and the mystery of beauty are all the same and they are the first concern of everyone."

Agnes concludes, "There is a purpose in our lives and it is in operation every minute. When we are right on the track we are rewarded with joy. We can know the whole truth with a request to our minds. If we are completely without direction we can withdraw and our minds will tell us the next step to take." I remembered a similar comment Agnes made in the interview with her in the New Art City DVD. Agnes found that connection to an inner voice that revealed insights to her and answers to questions as she worked.

It is that very connection that I depend on more and more with each new piece of work; that inner voice increasingly guides and shuts out the chatter and clutter of marketing, promotion, sales. The making of the work is now central, the connection to that center within fuels and guides the exploration.

It is possible to track Agnes' artistic evolution from her early days in New York City as part of the Abstract Expressionist era of the 1940's and 50's through her seven year sojourn from doing any painting at all followed by her choice to live and paint alone in an isolated part of the northern New Mexican desert. Studying the unfolding of an artist's life and work can be a rich source of inspiration. Alone with her work and a quiet contemplation of nature, I find great inspiration in Martin's leanings towards Asian philosophy and her connections with nature. How fortunate we are to have access to so many artists through the enormous documentation in both books and film of their work and ideas and inspirations.

As Nancy Doyle writes in her profile of Agnes, "Her work was influenced greatly by nature, however not in the sense of replicating nature - rather, she wanted the viewer to experience the same feelings they have when in front of nature. Some of her titles allude to nature - to leaves, rivers, flowers, etc., but her work has more to do with expressing positive inner states of existence. She has been associated with the Minimalist movement, but her work is less rigid, less cerebral - more spiritual in inspiration than Minimalist. She shared with her friend, the artist Richard Tuttle, certain attitudes about art and life, which stem from their interest in eastern philosophy - the ideas of ego-lessness, humility, and the Tao - in life and in art."

Many of us are drawn to art that attempts to express these "positive inner states of existence." Increasing numbers of western artists have been drawn to Asian philosophy. The works of those artists whose true inner selves seem to radiate through their imagery, marks and concepts are those that currently inspire and encourage me in my own artistic journey.

Let me close with this last quote from Martin's writing. because the advice it contains is vital for all of us:

"Make happiness your goal. The way to discover the truth about this life is to discover yourself."