Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why I've Been MIA

I got an e-mail from Lauren two days ago wondering why I haven't blogged in 12 days. The culprit started out as what I thought was a simple cold but turned fierce and hung on and on with flu-like aches and fatigue. I couldn't think clearly, felt slow and foggy. I still kept trucking as best I could, but I wore out pretty fast each day.

Happily, I'm almost completely over it and writing doesn't feel like climbing Mt.Everest. And blink, blink, surprise! -- I've actually gotten some good things done through the blizzard of sneezing and coughing and resting resting resting.

My wonderful husband "repurposed" some shelving from our basement to a dead corner of my studio space where I can now display my small works on the shelves as well as on the wall space above.

This is the first wall you see when you enter my studio, so it's a nice addition given that 28 artists in our building are starting to work together to have building-wide open houses. Our first one will be Friday, March 6, 5 - 9 PM. I'll write more about this!

See that silver panel on the far right? That's a piece of insulation board. I've wrapped them with cotton flannel blankets and Bob has attached them to the walls with wood casings along the tops and bottoms so I have a huge and easy to use design wall. It's eight feet tall and will be twelve feet wide when we complete it. The insulation board is lightweight and easy to pin into.
It's been exciting to have it and a huge improvement over the old curtain rods and clips I used for six years to pin up work in progress.

And lookee, lookee! My newest idea for a Seeds piece is finally looking good, although I had to discharge it TWICE -- the second time by hand, seed shape by seed shape -- to get to this stage. What comes next -- or so I think now -- is adding a bold, contrasting sheer overlay in red to the left hand section and then stitching the entire surface. You'll see it progress.

If you're reading this, then thanks for staying with me through my physical "power outage" -- my enthusiasm is back, the piles of used tissues are dwindling and I'm excited about the new work and ideas again. Even better, it's almost the end of February and warmer weather is just around the corner!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Late Blossoms:Celebrating Alma Woodsey Thomas

Meet Alma Woodsey Thomas, 1891-1978, an African-American artist and activist. Why does Alma capture my imagination and respect and make me want to write about her life?

Aside from being an artist who fell in love with reductive abstraction, Alma's commitment to her growth as an artist extended over the course of her lifetime. When I read that she had her first solo exhibition when she was 68 years old, it made me realize that there really aren't any time limits on creative pursuits or accomplishments.

Alma was born and raised in Columbus, Georgia. She developed a lifelong love of nature from spending summers on her grandfather's farm in Alabama. In 1907, at the age of 16, she moved with her family to Washington, D.C., into the house where she spent the remaining seven decades of her life.

Alma graduated from high school and then attended college, earning a teaching certificate and later her master's degree in art education. She was the first graduate of Howard University's art department. She supported herself by teaching art at Shaw Junior High School; she taught there from 1924 until her retirement in 1960.

Throughout her teaching years she studied art during the summers in New York City. She became an authority on the crafting of marionettes, kept up with the latest developments in contemporary art and in 1943, helped found the first modern art gallery in Washington. It was also the first gallery to exhibit the works of white and African-American artists together.

Alma continued to take art classes part-time during her teaching career. She studied at American University from 1950 to 1960. While she worked primarily in realism in the early part of her life, during her graduate studies at Howard she became fascinated by abstraction, even though her collectors and educated fellow DC-based African-Americans much preferred figurative art. It was during this time she developed the pointillist technique that remained the signature style of her work during her career; dense, irregular patterns painted on large canvases in oils and acrylics that have been described as reminiscent of Byzantine mosaic patterns.

Orion by Alma Woodsey Thomas, 1973, oil on canvas, 53 3/4 x 64", Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, Collection of National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The NMWA description of Orion points out, "...what makes this work exciting is the unpainted white spaces still visible between the dabs of color. This creates a pulsating, shimmering and ever-changing visual rhythm all across the composition - comparable, as Thomas said, to the streaks of color one might see while riding in a fast-moving train or airplane."

Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses by Alma Woodsey Thomas, 1969, acrylic on canvas, 60" x 50".

Broader recognition for Alma's paintings came later in life, according to a January 2002 Art in America article by Joe Fyfe. He writes, "Thomas's late work...consists of some 50 paintings done between 1972 and 1978, the year the artist died. During this time, Thomas was in her 80s and suffering from arthritis. Like the paintings that Renoir, another arthritis sufferer, did in his old age, her work of the 1970s is filled with an almost adamant joie de vivre. Renoir, we are told, had his brushes tied to his hands. Thomas would rest her large, lightweight canvases on two tables, then wedge herself between them so she wouldn't fall over while she worked."

Alma had her first one woman show at age 68 and perfected what was considered her signature style in her seventies. She went on to have retrospectives at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the National Museum of American Art, both in Washington, D.C. She was the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art and she exhibited her paintings at the White House on three occasions.

The changing colors and shifting patterns of light on the flowers in her garden through the windows of her home became a great source of inspiration for her paintings.

The artist's unfailing optimism comes through in the biographical descriptions I've found about her. She lived in a poor area of D.C, where she gave free art lessons to the neighborhood children even when she was nearly incapacitated by arthritis. She said that her paintings show that people can be "living in the heart of the ghetto and seeing beauty." In her 80's, she continued to paint even with a heart ailment and a broken hip.

When I think of the words "indomitable spirit", I am reminded by women artists like Alma Woodsey Thomas. I envision her joy in her process, in translating the world that she saw in her everyday surroundings into vivid interplays of light and color. One source writes how she always wore brightly colored clothes. The picture above, although black and white, certainly indicates this artist dressed as vibrantly as she painted and lived.

I hope that I can continue to create with joy and optimism for many decades to come. Role models like Alma Woodsey Thomas inspire me. She attended college in a time when many women, particularly black women, did not. She found a way to support herself that allowed her to continue to explore and develop her abilities as an artist. She followed her passion as a painter even when her community and supporters did not understand or appreciate her choice to paint abstractly. She did not allow age or physical infirmity to contain or limit the passion and joy that she expressed in her work.

In an age when we are eager to find positive role models, celebrating lives like Alma's can inspire us to create no matter what limitations we may experience. When we do what we love, we find joy and inspiration.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round, Round and Round

In all directions (and on every surface around me), new ideas and new work are moving forward. Hard to believe that just a short time ago I felt my wheels were spinning. There's a rhythm building again and more than any outward progress, it's that feeling that signals to me I'm back in my flow again.

Waiting to reengage with that energy is where trust enters in -- not a blind, unreasoning trust, but one based on experience with creative cycles. You remind yourself that not knowing where the work is going is perfectly fine, that the willingness to release a grip on outcomes makes the process so much more exciting -- and even though doubts and fears may creep in about whether new ideas will ever flow out in the studio again, you just patiently show up and do the work as the best you can, holding the intention in your mind and heart to create and trusting that eventually a new cycle of creative activity will begin again.

And then almost without realizing it you seem to find your stride. You totally forget that you ever felt anything but happily engaged and start setting out rain barrels to capture the downpour of ideas. Or at least this is how it works for me.

During the quiet part of my creative cycle, I quietly stitched and completed this 18" x 18" sample piece, learning a lot from the process about what this type of flowing, repetitive stitching can add to the surface. I decided to crop the work so that the gestural writing flows off the plane. Now that it's complete I can consider what I would change and what variations I would explore on the next one and appreciate how it provided activity for me during an otherwise quiet time.

At the studio I've been silkscreening with mid and light value grays and discharging a new silk ground that is a first layer. The next steps will develop the surface with more language imagery. I'll keep creating these and working on the types of marks I make on the surfaces. These marks will influence what the additional layers will be. If it sounds mysterious, it is. The work isn't preplanned, the ideas and meanings evolve around the concept or theme.

Here's what the piece looks like after painting and printing the first layer and then discharging back into it to age and soften the marks a bit. So far so good. It has potential. Over the next few studio days I'll revisit this and contemplate what to add next.

After a physical day at the studio, by evening I'm ready to sit, but I always combine that time with reading or some sort of prep or finishing work. A new Pages piece idea is beginning and in order to create it, I need to cut hundreds of these letterforms in a variety of values and scales.

There's always a pad of paper near me in the evenings to jot down to-dos for the next day and a pile of books and magazines nearby that I'm reading or intend to read. Creativity and imagination need infusions and so I am always mining my environment for stimulation.

And it all makes me happy. That's my basic barometer for success. If you're happy, if you feel passionate about what you are creating, you must be doing something right. If you put your love and passion into what you make, others will be drawn to the work as well. It will sing a siren's song.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Worth a Thousand Words?

Here are images of new small works from the past few days in my studio. Barely enough time to post these before I head back again for another day of revisioning the relationships between colors, marks and layers for new Parables pieces. Printing, monoprinting, drawing and painting into surfaces are anything BUT a quiet, orderly approach to process but I am working to become more intentional about creating more subtle, quieter areas to play against areas of high contrast and activity.

Here are new small works from the week's experimentation that are ready to be stitched and matted or framed. The play of color and value in these are particularly pleasing to me.

Monday the moon will be full. I seem to respond to these lunar cycles and once again feel a huge burst of creative energy, ideas and need to write less, work more.

Hopefully these images convey some of my current experimentation. Soon I'll try and write about some of the new ideas that are emerging.

In the interim, I'll be mixing up dyes and paints today and moving from small pieces like these (about 17" x 17") to larger ones.

Monday, February 2, 2009


"Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures." Henry Ward Beecher

Eric Maisel, in "Coaching the Artist Within", urges readers to create a statement of life purpose and then hold the intention to fulfill it, remaining mindful, passionate and focused. Do you have a sense of overall purpose and direction for your life? Could you write it down into a single sentence?

In "On Becoming An Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity", author and painter Ellen J. Langer writes "I have come to believe that, above all else, to be a true artist is to be mindful. Even if someone has all the skills in place, a mindlessly executed work of art is in some sense dead. If that is the case, then no matter what our level of skill, if the art is mindfully engaged, the end result should lead to a positive outcome."

What does it mean to mindfully engage in creating art? A Rainer Maria Rilke poem from "The Book of Hours" offers an insight:

"The hour is striking so close above me,
so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there's a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.

I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.

Do all our senses ring with attention to the artistic stimulation that surrounds us each day? Do we grasp and give shape to our worlds with the creative power that burns so strongly inside each one of us by truly looking? There is a magnetism in seeing.

Mindfulness -- being present and attentive as I engage in creating -- increasingly occupies my thoughts. I want my "looking" to ripen what I focus my gaze upon.

As I engage in stitching this painted language sample,I find myself entering a quiet, meditative state where I feel a connection to the movement and flow of the stitching. The machine begins to feel like an extension of my hand, a drawing tool.