Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Haunted Mansion

Yes, I confess, I am not always filled with good cheer and total optimism. Sometimes my "sun will come up tomorrow" attitude takes a nose dive and I feel self-doubt, insecurity and frustration. But becoming adept at the twists and turns of the artistic life include recognizing that sometimes I feel elated about my artistic progress and sometimes deflated and uncertain. The ideas and projects that seem so exciting and engaging and innovative one day suddenly feel dull and uninspired another day. When this happens I question many things, but most particularly, my own talent. Of course, what greater Achilles heel does any artist have than their own self-doubt? The ghostly. haunting feelings that cause one to question one's abilities and work are the most elusive, tricky and insidious ones of all.

It's a syndrome that in honor of Halloween this Friday, I'm going to name "The Haunted Mansion." Even though I just wrote that I don't always FEEL optimistic, my writing and playing with metaphors usually cheers and motivates me. Let's hope this is the case today.

Mansions are majestic places, opulent and luxurious and huge. That's our potential as human beings and artists. Since thoughts truly are things, I've been constructing a gorgeous mansion in thought and committed action as an artist. I have patiently and consistently practiced my craft, challenged and stretched myself to grow, and put my work out into the world (trying to remember to breathe at the same time). I have listened to and heeded that inner voice that pulls us away from the safe and familiar to explore uncharted and often uncertain, new directions.

I've met with failure and disappointment and recognition and praise enough that none are as important to me as my own sense of believing in my work, my vision and my ideas and engaging in my artistic practice to bring them to expression. While some people are outer directed, I am very inner directed and being so, very conscious of the landscape of my inner terrain. That's why it is one of my life challenges to keep putting my work and my perspectives out into the world, to turn thoughts and intentions into action and practice. I've been doing that now committedly for well over a decade and will continue to do so for as long as I am able.

So when whispery, ghostlike figures begin to wander the hallways of the lovely mansion I am hand-crafting with great care and attention, and I start to question my own worth as an artist, I know that I'm being haunted. The moaning, sighing ghostly apparitions?? -- my tired old doubts and fears that I still haven't totally let go of that seem determined to scare me out of continuing to craft the gorgeous dwelling that I'm building for my artistic self.

Maybe you are one of the fortunate artists who never fall prey to the voices of doubt and fear inside your head and you're sailing through life showing and selling every work you make. For your boldness and confidence, I salute you! Or maybe you're living the other extreme and those ghostly voices have you locked in a vice grip and you're so overwhelmed with doubts and fears that you're not creating anything at all. Perhaps like me, you're upbeat most of the time but every once in a while find yourself creeping down dark, shadowy hallways with nothing but a lit candle trying to convince yourself that you're brave and strong and can overcome ANYTHING.

What do we do when these apparitions begin to haunt our creative lives? In the good old days before slasher and gore films, the "ghosts" usually turned out to be "bad guys" trying to scare the owners off so they could buy the property for peanuts -- and of course for some reason that very property was soon going to be worth a fortune. That's one key to chasing away the ghostly apparitions: reality versus appearance. Doubt and insecurity are feelings, often based on fear or fatigue or disappointment, and they seldom hold up to rational thinking.

Step #1. Acknowledge that you're feeling haunted and a bit frightened and surrounded by darkness and then TURN A LIGHT ON. Rationally, none of the self-critical, hopeless thoughts that any of us think are 100% truthful. They're usually exaggerated, biased and contaminated.

Factual Statement: The basic concepts behind this body of work are solid, I just have not yet resolved this current work to my satisfaction. There are solutions to this problem that will resolve it. I am making a list of options, which I will test and choose from to complete it. I will learn from trying out these options. I am confident that one of them will work out satisfactorily. My confidence is based on having faced other design challenges and resolved them to my satisfaction. I know that working through this will further increase my confidence in my artistic abilities.

Step #2. DON'T GO IT ALONE. Don't you just know for sure when the good guys enter a dark building and one says, "Let's split up. You go this way and I'll go that way," that one of them is SO going to run into Someone or Something Terrible???

Factual Statement: We are communal beings. I have some trusted people in my life that let me moan and whine a little and then remind me that I'm making a great body of work, that it's being recognized and acknowledged in the world and will continue to be received and appreciated even more in the future. I have good friends who share my love of creating and who accept and enjoy me.

Step #3. KEEP WORKING. In scary movies, the hero/heroine never gives in, gives up or falls down, no matter how many times punched, thrown or dangling off the edge of a precipice. The hero/ine opens the locked door, climbs the tower or enters the dark, cobwebby tunnel. Perhaps art is not for the faint-hearted, the scared or timid but for the bold and adventurous -- or PERHAPS those who start out scared or timid and stick with their art practice eventually become the heroes and heroines of their own story!!

Factual Statement: I feel so much clearer than when I started writing this. I'm a doer and not just a talker or philosophizer. On that note, I'm going to stop writing, get in my car, drive to my studio and get back to work!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Sense of Play

In my art practice, sometimes I find myself psychologically foraging through a jungle and whacking a machete at dense underbrush -- so serious and determined that I completely overlook the open plain right next to it that I could be strolling across instead. In short, when making art feels like hard work instead of play, it's usually because I'm choosing to make it that way.

With a mixed-blessing predisposition to being responsible and organized and "Getting Things Done", so I can check items off my much-valued to-do lists, it has occurred to me I've recently developed a severe case of "serious" artist. When was the last time I just PLAYED for the sake of play, without any goal posts or end zones in sight?

Enter my ALMOST four-year-old honorary granddaughter, Sadie. I met her, her mom and little sister Abby yesterday at a local garden center that had set up a Halloween family event. Sadie and I spun around together on one ride, slid down the giant slide on a burlap bag and put glue and glitter all over a tiny pumpkin, then stuck purple and pink and blue feathers on it. We sat inside a small, decorated pergola and ate tiny cupcakes, hidden from the crowd. We met a giant parrot who sat on people's arms and seemed to enjoy all the attention. We petted kittens from the local pet shelter and Sadie told me why cats have litter boxes. In short, it was one of the best artist dates I've had in a LONG time!

It's no coincidence that a book came into my hands just a few days earlier to remind me that my own creativity is hands-down bigger and offers more entertaining rides than Disneyland --- and even better, there's never a wait in line! The book is Keri Smith's "How to Be an Explorer of the World."

Somewhat SARK-like in its use of hand printed text and whimsical illustrations, Keri's book takes a simple artistic premise -- collecting and documenting -- and develops it into a delightful series of numbered suggestions for personal explorations. Some are her ideas and some are freely borrowed from and attributed to others. Together they are gentle, smiling reminders to relish and find inspirational treasures in the everyday, small wonders that are all around us.

Here's an example of Keri's exercises. " Exploration #10: Choose an everyday object. This can be something you find on the street or something you have. Look at the top half of the object for 15 minutes. Record everything you see there in detail. Then do the same for the bottom half. The longer you look the more you will see. "

THE LONGER YOU LOOK THE MORE YOU WILL SEE. Isn't this just about the best one liner any artist could adopt?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Comfortable in Your Own Skin

Artistic stimulation comes from a variety of sources. Nature seems to be one of the constants for inspiration, so getting out in nature and observing the cycles and seasons of plant and animal life can be a rich source of creative material. Sometimes our search for our own unique visual voice and perspective is far less complicated than we make it.

Every morning the view of the horizon outside my front door creates a new and unique panorama as daylight replaces darkness. If I painted just this single view every day, I could create a unique and different painting every day for the rest of my life. Whether I painted the scene realistically or abstractly, the source of inspiration would be the same, a view from a doorway -- and it could become a purposeful, exciting and energetic life's work to translate that scene into two dimensional art. Making art is a form of translation, one that gives us total freedom to alter the source and express a visual idea exactly as we choose, regardless of what the reality of the object or scene is.

Many artists paint fall scenes and the Western New York State rolling hills and valleys near my home attract photographers and plein air painters. Local entrepreneurs sell pumpkins,canned concord grapes and tangy, sweet grape pies at makeshift roadside stands. There is a romantic allure to capturing the changing landscape of the world around us in representational art and it's a wonderful, engaging occupation. Someday I might even do it.
Instead, I spend my days immersed in images of letter forms incised onto wax tablets from ancient Rome, Phoenician scripts chiseled in stone, the quivering, dancing flourishes of Asian calligraphy and carefully penned cursive script from 1800's women's journals written with quill pens dipped in ink bottles. How and what we communicate in writing, both publicly and privately, officially and informally -- stimulate and inform me as I work. The sense of digging deeper always accompanies this searching, and with it a belief that I am following a pathway that will lead me to exciting new insights and ideas for expressing them visually.

It is not that I see these letter form compositions as the ultimate destination point in my artistic growth. So often as we grow as artists, we become attracted to a particular theme or subject, sometimes almost compulsively drawn to explore it. Rocks and cliffs have fascinated me for a number of years with their incredible variety of patterns and marks on their surfaces. A number of years ago I spent months trying to translate these patterns to fabric using paints and dyes. The endeavor taught me a lot about creating visual texture on a surface. While I still use the techniques -- and still love and collect rocks and stones where I go -- my attention has shifted. The intensity of the absorption remains constant however.

In my current language imagery phase, I seem drawn to observe language everywhere. Artists who use it in their work intrigue me. So do rough, hand lettered signs set at the side of the road, graffiti, city streets filled with diverse business signs, posters nailed to telephone poles.

Getting comfortable in your own skin means being willing to follow your artistic impulses and do the necessary digging and cultivating to bring whatever imagery that attracts you to use in your work to the surface. So often that internal editor or critic -- and sometimes an outer voice -- slams an interest before we really can even begin to develop ideas around a subject or concept. Quietly slipping past that moment of self-doubt and continuing to work steadily and quietly helps the imagery develop as we work.

When I first started the piece I'm currently working on, I had an image in my mind of huge calligraphic letter forms sprawled across a surface. When I tried this on the surface above, it didn't work. It could be the dark brown color of these letter forms is too strong a leap in value or that they are just too large and engulfing. Perhaps they need to be painted on a surface to give them the energy I'm desiring. I'll return to this idea again in the future and see if I can make it work, but for now I've taken these elements off the surface.

What happened on this first effort that I love and want to develop are the letter forms where the strong shifts in value create some portions that are defined and others seem to disappear. A WONDERFUL discovery, which I decide to explore more in the next revision.

This version works to emphasize the vertical rows of the letter forms, varying the sheers to emphasize the idea of receding and advancing as well as partial forms contrasting with complete ones. At this stage I like parts of the piece, but there is more editing and revising ahead. Once I am totally resolved about the composition, I'll fuss with the shapes and align them so they flow smoothly up and down the surface.

One idea that I am considering for when I return to this work tomorrow is how I might interrupt the vertical flow of shapes in one or more of the lines to add more interest to the composition or replace a more dominant element (in this case I removed smaller scale dark rust sheer letters to the right of the larges ones) with one that almost fades away totally into the ground.

Still, this one is close to being resolved as a composition and I'm pleased with its evolution. Since I have another ground fabric ready and waiting in the wings, I can move right on to another work that refines and moves these ideas forward.

Once we are comfortable in our skins as an artist, the inevitable problems and missteps in the creative process don't trigger a barrage of self-doubt about our artistic worth or talent. In this self-assured state, ideas can fail, works can be fatally flawed or even just ORDINARY, but because we trust that inner voice, our artistic voice will begin to shine through each work, and with each new work, it will shine a bit brighter...and truer...and more powerfully. The key is trust. In ourselves as creators, in our ability to work through design problems successfully and in the deep, universal archetypes of growth and change.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fabrications Workshop -- At Last!

Now that my digital camera/computer connection has been restored (thanks to buying a new card reader -- the old cord stopped working), you can FINALLY see some images from the Fabrications retreat. What a great group of people -- I cannot recommend this retreat enough. I've taught there twice and have enjoyed both the people and the beautiful northern Michigan location.

One of the amazing benefits of taking any workshop is the concentrated energy of so many people focused on learning and creating together. The ah-ha's and satisfaction when new processes connect with ideas and imagery are the rewards.

Patrice had learned the basic freemotion embroidery stitches in my workshop two years ago at Fabrications, so this time she could focus on the relationship between the various stitch textures, color combinations and design possibilities. She began working on a freeform pattern of maplike shapes on her surface by drawing with her sewing machine, inspired by a book of aerial photographs of the earth. Then she started translating the shapes into color and texture with thread and textural stitching.

Here's one of her pieces in progress. . Patrice's green areas in this piece are done in a mossing stitch, which is worked from the back with heavier threads in the bobbin.

Barb's reference image was a favorite tree in front of her cottage. She combined her photographic reference with an image of a watercolorist's work that she admired very much and worked to develop a surface treatment for her tree that was inspired by that artist's. She simplified the shapes in her drawing, transferred them to fabric, placed an overlapping geometric arrangement of a variety of colored sheers on her surface and began working to flesh out the textures and shapes of the tree in threadwork. She plans to change the thread colors in response to the color of each sheer layer behind the trunk and branches, so the image will be representational but the colors will be improvisational. She made a lot of progress and is quite excited about developing the idea.

As a class exercise, I sent everyone on a field trip to the ladies room at the conference center. The marble tiled walls offered a candy store of design possibilities for freemotion machine embroidery. Each person selected and traced a design from the tiles, then edited the traced lines and shapes and transferred them onto fabric. The incredible variety of shapes and patterns on the tiles offered interesting compositions for practicing freemotion embroidery textures and stitches -- what a bonanza and a great reminder that design inspirations are all around us in the least expected places! I'm hoping that students will send me some of their completed compositions -- I'd love to offer a "gallery exhibition" of them on this blog in the future!

We created another sample to "mine" for design inspirations by purchasing pieces of hand-dyed and hand-painted fabrics that Desiree Vaughn was selling. These already have wonderful shapes and value shifts on their surfaces. By letting the shapes suggest ideas, either abstract or representational compositions can begin to develop. The piece above is one of Cheryl's samples where she "saw"and stitched some textural leaf shapes onto the surface.

On the sample above, done by Karen, you can see some attached lace and leaf shapes. As part of the class, we created various shapes by sandwiching water soluble in a hoop and then stitching. This method can be used to create densely stitched shapes that can be attached to other cloth surfaces without distorting them. We also cut out shapes in the fabric sandwiches and created lacy machine stitching in the openings, a lovely open window where a contrasting fabric can be stitched behind.

The class moved at a fast pace and all heroically overcame balking machines and the classic classroom issues of shaking tables, not having all the supplies at our beck and call that we have at home and our natural tendency to want to create a perfect finished piece instead of making samples. We enjoyed great food, lovely fall weather and plenty of creative stimulation from all directions thanks to Desi, Peg, Cathy and Kathy, the hardworking AND talented organizers of these Fabrications retreats!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Smoothing Out the Wrinkles

There is comfort in daily routines. The smell of morning coffee brewing, the warm glow of electric lights before daylight emerges, the automatic way my hand reaches out to smooth the wrinkles from the covers and plump the pillows while making the bed. Quiet, familiar activities start a new day.

Returning home from a time away tends to intensify awareness of how pleasurable these everyday, small routines are. The familiarity and repetition can be soothing. To travel brings new stimulation and connections with places and people but to come home is a comfort indeed.

Details from life experiences tend to linger in memory, often in bits and pieces. Look back over the course of a day, a week, a year, a life and often it's the most unremarkable details that become identified with experiences. An artist savors these bits and pieces of memories and recollections. Some memories may be summoned back intentionally, but many others rise to the surface just when needed and become integral to understanding the concept behind one's work.

It has occurred to me lately that my language series actually has grown from seeds that were planted in 1995, when I visited my daughter for 16 days in Taichung, Taiwan. We traveled from one end of the island to the other, delighted and amazed at how different the culture was from our American one. I could not speak the language or read any of the signs; when we visited markets and purchased fruits and vegetables, I held out my hands with coins in them and the vendors pointed to the correct ones so I could pay them. I felt both helplessness and a total trust.

One weekend morning we visited the Jade Market in downtown Taichung, where vendors sold food and all types of jade and crafts. Standing in the middle of this bustling, unbelievably noisy marketplace was a young monk. His head was shaved, he wore saffron robes and held out his alms bowl as he stood quietly amidst the noise. I felt magnetically drawn to him and intuitively recognized that in the midst of this surge of people intent on making money, he was practicing just being present. I walked up to him and placed money in his empty bowl; our eyes met and without words I knew that I was blessing and affirming him and that he, in return, was blessing and affirming me. The recollection of this meeting and connection still causes an emotional swell inside me. I realized that although the young monk and I could not speak and understand each other, we had communicated -- and the connection felt peaceful and powerful.

Language and communication are more mysterious than we seem to recognize. We say words and think because we share a common language that the other person automatically understands what we are trying to express, but this does not always happen.

It occurred to me after I returned home from Taiwan that I had experienced true communication, one that wasn't dependent on a shared language. I realized this most acutely by being in a place where I couldn't use my words to communicate with almost everyone around me. Now the idea of connecting beyond words rather than through them is one that most intrigues me in my work.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Fabrications Retreat and Studio Progress

I ended up NOT making any changes to "Seeds of Compassion," other than altering the shapes of a few of the colored slivers within the cocoon shapes. It is totally and completely DONE, which gives me closure. Now I can switch my focus to teaching.

Since my last studio day on Thursday, I've been preparing for my drive to Michigan to teach a class called "It's All About the Stitch" at the Fabrications Retreat: http://www.fabricationsretreat.com/

Here's a class sample showing a few of the stitch and thread combinations that can be combined to build textural surfaces. The variables in freemotion embroidery techniques are the types and weights of the threads used and adjustments to the top and bottom sewing machine tensions.

Some stitches are worked on the back of the fabric using heavier threads in the bobbin, which builds up texture and pattern on the front. Varying the speed of stitching, types and colors of threads and machine tensions all provide different effects that can be combined to create fascinating surfaces that invite the eye to linger and explore.

Rich texture can also be created just by using straight stitch variations, shown in the detail of another class sample, above. Combining colors and building the surface with layered stitches is a fascinating process that lends itself well to small works, where the smaller scale creates a more intimate interaction. It is fascinating to learn and I enjoy helping other artists to expand their textile "vocabularies"-- back to that language theme again.

There's a pleasant undertone to teaching and traveling knowing that three new works in progress are waiting for me when I return. For these large scale pieces I'll be revisiting the palette that was in my piece "Translations", with a few new additions. I need to include some touches like the marvelous saffron gold in these Sri Lankan monks' robes to this neutral, earth-tone palette.

Here's a detail of the original Translations piece, so you can see how this new work is beginning to expand the palette. This piece started with a rusted fabric ground, so I also rusted new fabrics in my studio on Thursday for when I return.

Can you see the subtle Phoenician alphabet letters applied with wax resist before rusting on this piece? The results are very promising and I am envisioning doing more for future works. This will be a wonderful ground fabric to work with as a starting point for another new piece.

For one of the new pieces I've cut out numerous letter forms in a variety of scales -- some will be resists to create negative space letter images and others will be patterns to cut out other fabrics as positive shapes to layer onto the surface. I haven't decided how to place them. I did move the pattern shapes around and considered the areas of positive and negative space. Lots more work ahead on that but this is a good starting point.

I'm trusting that I'll have wireless Internet at the resort where the retreat will be held and will send images of the class and the beautiful Northern Michigan landscape. Two years ago it snowed while we were there -- I'm hoping that's not the case this year!