Decisions, Decisions

One of the things that I find most compelling about making abstract art is the decision-making that goes into the process. Many times I’ve started a painting and come to a crossroads, where I have a couple different ideas for the way the painting could go. Sometimes I choose to continue on my original path and other times I opt for the new direction. But whatever decision I make, I often find I’m haunted by the painting that could have been. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m unhappy with the painting I made, just that there is the ghost of a painting, sometimes underneath the finished work, and sometimes that other painting feels like it needs to exist too. This leads to painting in series. Normally I don’t give a painting a series number until I’ve painted the second painting in the series. But with Rain Garden #1 I knew as I was painting it that I was  going to have to create a #2. There was another direction I was interested in taking as the painting evolved, but I liked the first direction and I didn’t want to destroy what I had made.

Enter Rain Garden #2:

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I used a similar process to Rain Garden #1, applying thin layers of green and blue and then dripping solvent over the canvas. But this time I applied the original layers in wide streaks, instead of the round, cloud-like forms of the first painting. The result is rather different, much more different than what I was expecting. I actually really love the unexpected aspects of working this way. I steer the process to some extent, but add an element of randomness. It makes painting much more exciting for me. But in this case I’m not sure I am happy with the extensiveness of the streaking in this painting. At the same time, I’m rather fascinated by some of the effects created that are different than those of Rain Garden #1.

What I had planned to do, the direction I did not take with Rain Garden #1, was to add some floral notes to the garden. But then I started thinking about a Japanese garden I had visited on an overcast day, and how the garden was almost entirely green. I started to think of the way rain can make everything look greener. I decided to save floral elements for another garden.

Even without the floral elements I am still considering going back into this work and making some small changes. Maybe turning the canvas over and dripping the solvent down the other way. Maybe breaking up some of the dark patches by putting solvent on a rag and cutting into those patches deliberately.

I’ve also considered turning the painting on end, which gives the effect of a rippling green pool.

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Whichever path I decide to take in this painting, I have a feeling it is going to lead to a Rain Garden #3…

Rain Garden #1

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I  am excited to have something new to post. This piece came about through an interest in focusing on certain colors and a desire to experiment. I used multiple greens and blues in a layering technique, then I poured Gamsol over it, hoping for a streaking effect, which I was quite pleased with. There were a few areas that came out looking cloudy, so I went back into those with paint. I really love working with color fields. I feel like I can enter some magical, otherworldly realm through them. They bring to me the feel of a thing more than the image of the thing itself.

I have been quite ill for the past couple months, so it was really wonderful to be able to make something over the last few days. I still think I have CFS, but no diagnosis yet, just endless doctor visits. Being ill has left me on my own a lot of the time and I have been thinking a lot about Frida Kahlo and especially the Two Fridas. I remember reading something to the effect of Frida needing to be her own best friend because she was so unwell and thus often alone. I knew this on an intellectual level, but somehow these past couple months have really brought it home to me on a much deeper level. I’ve been sick off and on for the past three years, but no single episode has ever lasted this long. So I find I am often alone and I am often struggling to perform basic functions. As this happened I began telling myself, “It’s okay, I will help you,” as though there were two of me and I thought about the Two Fridas  and felt I understood it much differently.

I thought of painting or drawing some self-portraits, but I didn’t really want to. I recall reading that Frida painted self-portraits at least in part because she didn’t want people to forget about her. I can see this more clearly now too. I feel sometimes that I’ve all but disappeared.

For me, there is much relief to be found in my imagination. So I want to incorporate that into my paintings, even if I’m limited in how much work I can do. The color fields invite imagining and if I share my work, then I feel like I am still present in the world. If I can make work, I feel like I still have purpose.

Salt Painting and Eva Hesse

Art-making has been intermittent. A number of pieces are sitting unfinished. Sometimes I look at too much art and I lose all perspective. I can’t remember what kind of artist I want to be. I feel like there are so many ideas pushing in on me, telling me what kind of artist I SHOULD be. Shouting almost. It can be hard to find a quiet space until I’m forced to. Being sick makes everything much quieter. Lately I am sick a lot and I still don’t know why. I am tired of going to doctors, taking all my time and energy for no answers. Vertigo, and fever, and weakness, and exhaustion. It’s limiting. It limits the kind of art I can make and how quickly I can make it. I tried making some more realistic pieces. Here is one. It’s 22″ by 28″.

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It’s unfinished, based on a NASA photo of the Bahamas. The more I looked at the photograph, the more detail I could see. Too much detail. And then I started to wonder about the purpose of including so much detail. So the painting is like this and I am not sure it is done. I looked at more art online and of course other people paint things like this. Other people paint images from space and aerial views. I feel like I need to do something that can be completely my own.

I hadn’t decided that yet, though, and I started another painting that was going to be another view from space. But i felt smothered by all the details. It was just going to be copying. And I hate copying. I decided to add some coarse sea salt crystals to it. I’m not sure why I thought about that. I have an old painting that I used salt in to make a desert. The painting evolved into something quite different… a glacier. I had been looking at ice images quite a bit, thinking I would like to do something with that… and then this painting came. Much of it is dark, so it’s hard to photograph well. When I’m feeling healthier I am planning to get some semi-professional help taking photos of some paintings. It’s 30″ by 40″. Glacier with Northern Lights.

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It was a greater risk than the other one. I still like the other one. I like it enough to hang it if I can find room. But I feel like I need a clearer direction for my work and the work I love doing the most is the work that is the least restricted, the most playful, the most experimental. Tonight I am watching the Eva Hesse documentary and feeling inspired. It’s so easy to forget that artists who are now recognized as being important struggled so much with feelings of failure. I love hearing the words of her letters and So LeWitt’s famous “DO” letter. There is a great sense of freedom in her work. When I feel I’ve become too restricted in my art-making the work loses its vitality. The paintings I’ve made that I like best are often the ones that had the least planning. It’s also easier when I am unwell to work with greater freedom when I am up to working. Shaky hands. blurred vision and so forth don’t hurt these kinds of paintings the way they would something that needed more precision. These things instead that are part of me then become part of the work too. I don’t have to be a machine. I like art that looks like it was made by a human.

 

 

 

Pastel and Paper

For the last few months I’ve been working with soft pastels, something I hadn’t done for a long time. I used pastels quite a bit in high school. I always wanted to paint, but oil paints were out of my price range and class periods were too short to allow much time for clean-up. It seems I really need to find a place to sell some paintings because I am running out of room in my apartment. It’s nice in a way to realize I’ve become prolific as an artist because I was very slow to finis a piece when i was younger. Canvases take up more space than paper , so I thought I would try working with pastel again. I was also inspired by Zaria Forman’s large-scale pastel paintings of icebergs. While I’ve generally become less interested in realistic art work, these are stunners. Then I ended up watching Chasing Ice, which is a fascinating film and full of stunning images somewhat similar to hers.

For myself, I still want to paint oceans and ocean themed subjects, at least in the summer. The work I’m doing lately is representational in nature, although I want to get back into abstract work again too. I think I really prefer working in paint for abstracts.

I’ve been experimenting with different types of paper and different brands of pastels. I am in love with the Unison pastels, but find I have to fill out my palette with some less expensive options. I started using sanded paper for the first time ever. I love the tooth, but I’m used to being able to blend with my fingers and with sanded paper I actually ended up rubbing my fingers raw a number of times, even using a very fine-grained paper. It’s also rather costly. I’ve heard of people using industrial grade sandpapers for pastel, so I might try that and see how it goes. I used the Canson Mi-teintes paper I had bought. Definitely not my favorite, but nice for small sketches. I just don’t care much for the texture of the paper. I have to make sure I load it heavily enough that the texture doesn’t show through the pastel.

These are two small pastels on the Mi-teintes paper. I have other larger pieces I’m working on as well, but they aren’t done yet.

I have been searching Pinterest for beach and wave photos, with mixed feelings because I don’t like using copyrighted photographs in any way for my work. I never copy a photo exactly. I change cloud shapes, colors, or compositional elements to some extent. I prefer to use my own photos, but my trips to the ocean or sea have been few and my stock of photos is limited. I wanted to explore a more tropical color palette (to use that wonderful Tropical Ocean set from Unison.) But I’ve never been to a tropical ocean so I don’t have my own reference photos.

Small pastel on sanded paper, from a photo I took in California almost 20 years ago. (Old reference photos *sigh*)

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This one is on velour paper. Sadly much of my velour paper arrived damaged, but I decided to try using it anyway. It has some dents, though. I can’t decide how I like this as a surface. It seems to eat my pastels rather quickly.

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I’m fascinated with wave patterns and the patterns of light on and through waves. At the same time, I’m also very interested in clean lines, in broad almost empty feeling landscapes. I think a lot of Georgia O’Keeffe’s the Wave, Night (1928) and her Blue Wave, Maine (1926).

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The Wave, Night (1928) Georgia O’Keeffe

 

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Blue Wave, Maine (1926) Georgia O’Keeffe

I wish i could see these pieces in person. I find after living in this very small city for so many years that large cities are rather stressful for me. At the same time, I miss the cultural amenities a large city has to offer. One of these is art.

 

Trees, Unfinished

I haven’t posted anything in some time. An illness that has now lasted over a month has been bad for painting. I have started to work again, slowly. I find myself thinking of ways to work around my symptoms. I become tired very quickly and my vertigo is so bad some days I can’t stand up without feeling like I’m on a rocking boat. So I paint on better days and I paint in short spurts. I’m also thinking of changing mediums. I love oil paint so very much, but with the illness it has been difficult to find the energy to clean my brushes. A friend gave me some water miscible oils as a  Christmas gift, something that I had never thought to try before. I am still getting used to them, but I am thinking they might be a good choice for me. I’ve also started working in pastel again, something I haven’t done much of for years. I’m still thinking about oil projects, though, especially about staining. I love the effects of thin layers of oil paint. And if I’m doing this I can put the canvas on the floor and work that way, which helps with my current physical limitations.

I think a lot about artists with such limitations lately, people whose physical problems were (or are) much greater than mine and who I feel almost embarrassed to think of in relation to myself. Frida Kahlo, of course. I remember reading about her painting in bed after her accident and I wonder how she managed it. I think I am too clumsy to try this. I would have paint all over everything. (I have done some pastel work this way, though.) Eva Hesse, near the end of her life, working with the help of an assistant, to keep making sculptures. Georgia O’Keeffe, losing her eyesight and learning pottery with an assistant’s help. Carmen Herrera, over 100 years old and still creating, also with help. There is a lot of inspiration there. I feel encouraged to keep making art when I read about them.

I am becoming very interested in the work of Helen Frankenthaler. Her painting “Sea Change” at the Dayton Art Institute, has long been my favorite artwork there. The DAI has a nice Instagram account and they posted an image of that piece, with links to more information on the work and Frankenthaler. I want to go back to doing more abstract work. It feels more exciting to me than anything representational.

I do love trees, though, which is what my recent work has been. Trees are a kind of abstraction in themselves. I love when they are these dark shapes cutting through a color field of backlit leaves. This is my most recent work, which I started mid-December and have been working on piecemeal, when I am feeling well enough to work.

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Recently I was able to visit an art supply store as part of a shopping trip with friends. Being able to take a shopping trip suggests an improvement in my health, so I am hopeful of being well enough to paint more regularly before long. I usually order all of my supplies online, as there are no true art supply stores near where I live (just craft stores and a poorly stocked and overpriced university bookstore.) I had not been in a true art supply store in years. I found myself overwhelmed with possibilities. Every item was the possibility of some new creation, some new direction my work might take. I lost time in there, wandering from aisle to aisle debating with myself on what to buy (and probably buying more than I should have in the end, although it also felt like not nearly enough.) I now have sanded pastel paper, which I have never tried before, and a shade of green from Winsor & Newton that I am longing to thin out and spread over a large canvas. I’m not usually so interested in greens in the winter, but right now this green feels right, full of life and brilliance. Maybe it’s what I need right now.

A Show

I completed four paintings in the Sea Life Series and put them on display at my university library on the fine arts floor. (There’s a process and paperwork for that, but it’s not like doing a juried show.) I chose a deadline to push myself to finish the work, but with all my other responsibilities it was more difficult to meet that deadline than I thought it would be. I’m happy I was able to complete the series and display it publicly, though.

It seems like any time I push to display work by a deadline I feel tapped out afterwards. It also occurred to me once I put up this display that I’m unlikely to get much feedback on it. I remember displaying work at the art camp I attended when I was about 16 and watching from the second floor as people stopped to look at my work below. The experience of seeing people respond to my work has stayed with me for years, but generally I’m not going to see or know how people respond to work I display.

Putting up work for the first time in a long time I was thinking of the Rothko quote:

“A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent.”

At home the places where those paintings hung feel bereft. I’ve started to think about a new series, but I haven’t started laying down paint yet. I should start again soon.

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Walking “Input”

For today’s class we went outside and looked at Maya Lin’s Input sculpture.

I’m somewhat limited on art I can have my students see in person and we seem to spend a lot of time looking at PowerPoint slides, so it is exciting to tell them we can go outside and look at art by a world-class artist who grew up in our city.

My feelings about the sculpture are somewhat mixed. I wish they could keep the grass around it greener. I wonder why cement was chosen and not a more attractive material. The cement is blackened and hard to read in places. But I enjoy the physical aspect of the sculpture. Today I took the class and we wandered around. I told them to climb on it, to climb inside it, to make sure to read the poem inscribed on the rectangles. Reading the poem is essential to the art work. When I search for the poem online I find this:

Every block is just a code
for all those things we already knew
The college green,
something made from clay,
the mural outside Seigfred Hall,
or the rose colored Juncos at Dow Lake.
The stones of a patio
The Hocking overflowing
The sounds of 17 year locusts
The death of my father
But there are other words inscribed on the rectangles that seem not to be part of the poem, some explaining the sculpture’s reference to computer punch cards. The students who came to class today spent a decent amount of time going through the sculpture. (I did tell them I was putting a question on the midterm about it, because sometimes it seems that students get the idea that if we have a hands-on experience they don’t need to participate because it won’t be on the exam, yet those are some of the most important activities in the course.) One student stayed longer, almost to the end of the period. He went through all the rectangles in one direction and then back again in the other direction. I stayed and talked to him for a couple minutes after and he said what many students say, about how they never really noticed the sculpture before. Then he said “thank you.”
There are a few times a student has thanked me for teaching and it is amazing how gratifying hearing those simple words are. I feel gratitude toward my favorite teachers, but I am not sure I ever said the words “thank you” to them and I wish I had.
Walking through the sculpture is a meditative experience for me and I hope it was for the students as well. I am often anxious these days, sometimes in a state of near panic and it is very difficult to break out of that feeling. I think sometimes it comes from being divided between too many tasks. I feel overwhelmed. I have the typical graduate student fears for the future. Going to campus or moving around the campus area can be frightening with the amount of traffic and the lack of consideration for pedestrians (even when we are using the crosswalks the way we are supposed to.) I tend to arrive at my classroom in a state of anxiety, feeling like I am having trouble getting my breath or that my heartbeat is too rapid. But teaching and being able to focus on the art I love takes me out of that anxious state. Walking Input  did an even more thorough job of calming my mind. I know the students have a great deal of stress too, so I hope they felt some of that peace and calm while engaging with the sculpture.
I feel this sense of peace when I am making art too. As my practice has developed and I have come closer to a style I feel is suitable for me and what I want to express in my work, I have less fear of failure with my work and greater joy in creating. I just wish I had a better idea of how to make my way in the world as an artist. There is a voice in the back of my head telling me I should not try to move in that direction, that I should focus on finding a more traditional career path. The other voice says that if I only I can find a way to get the time and money to continue making art I might produce something great. I’m not comfortable judging the ‘greatness’ of my own work, but I feel I have made some things that are beautiful.  I feel like I have more ideas for works than I can actually create at the moment and my focus and energy for doing the work isn’t waning. I just need to find the right audience for it.

Sea Life 4 (In Progress)

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Sea Life 4 (still in progress) 24″x24″ oil on wood

Academic life is leaving less time for artistic life, but I am still making art, just more slowly. I have a fourth painting for the Sea Life series in progress. I seem to get inspired by seasonal color palettes and motifs and then I find I am still working with said season after it is over. I am planning to show the four Sea Life paintings at the university library as soon as they are finished, but it would probably be more fitting to show the leaves I was making last fall, in terms of the season. The leaves have not changed much yet here and weather still feels like summer, so the Sea Life paintings don’t feel that out of season.

With this four painting I included more of the ‘coral” branches. I tried variegating their color somewhat, with a combination of pinks that veer between a “coral” orange pink and a bluer pink. The painting itself has some violets in it, which the others do not. I tried a stippling affect again, but this time with a brush rather than a sponge.  They produce somewhat different effects. It is easier to control the color and placement with the brush than the sponge, but the unpredictability of the sponge also yielded some interesting effects.

My students turned in their abstract art project yesterday. I always enjoy seeing what they make. I teach an academic art class, meaning a theory and analysis type course, but I feel like we need hands-on activities too. Students sometimes comment in the evaluations on how much they like hands-on activities. And for me a large part of being an artist is tactile, the literal hands-on approach. I’m not teaching them to be artists, but I think having some tactile, artist experiences can improve their understanding of the art we study.

Tomorrow we are supposed to be doing some work on Maya Lin and weather permitting taking a trip outside to experience one of her works. I inadvertantly scheduled the trip near her birthday too. I wish we had more art we could experience firsthand. I’m going to try to plan a trip to the university art museum for next semester, when my class period will last longer.

Teaching helps me stay inspired to make art, mainly because I enjoy teaching the work of artists I love. At the same time, it sometimes forces unanswered questions to the forefront of my thinking and those can cause hang-ups in my work. The “money” chapter of the textbook is probably the most glaring example of this. The students seem stymied by this too, sometimes, especially when we talk about Rothko and the Four Seasons. For myself, I wonder what will happen to my artistic practice after graduate school. I am afraid that whatever work I find (assuming I find any) will take so much time and energy that my artistic practice will be crushed underneath the job. At the same time, I’m not sure if or how to break into the art world. I don’t have the right background to become an art professor and am unlikely ever to get it. There is some appeal to the idea of an MFA in studio art, but I think that path is closed to me. I try not to think about these things to much and to focus on making the art while I have the time, but there is always this fear lingering in the back of my mind that the time is running out.

Sea Life

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This painting is nearly finished now. I am waiting for one side of it to dry and trying to decide if I want to extend the sculptural elements over all four edges. It is somewhat challenging to do this on the easel, but once the Sculptamold dries I can let the painting rest on it to work a side that wasn’t accessible before. Once the painting is hung having the sculptural elements extend over the edges won’t be an issue.

I’m also considering a different orientation for this piece.

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I’ve certainly made something that is difficult to photograph. The sides of the painting cast shadows and the entire work is not viewable from any single perspective. The sculptural elements extend over the edges and the edges are all painted so as to be part of the art work.

I have three in this series now and I’m hoping to make it a series of five or six. They are somewhat time-consuming, as the way I am working these is choosing a color-theme based on underwater images and then working with those colors until I get something I am happy with. I like the improvisational aspect, but sometimes I have to struggle to get something that I am happy with.

Sea and Corals (3)

This is, as yet, unfinished. I could keep the “coral” parts white, I suppose, but I like the contrast of the pink shade. My screens don’t seem to show blues very well and this painting is mostly brilliant shades of turquoise in the underpainting, with layers of green and blue. I tried doing some stippling with a silk sponge this time. I wanted an effect of gentle motion, something like watching slow-moving waves or underwater plants. I had thought to try to put the corals in differently this time, to try to make them more natural, but the Sculptamold was not obliging and I went with what I had before. They look more like the broken pieces of coral you might find on the beach. (Well, the only time I have ever found broken coral on a beach was in Oman after the cyclone. It was white branch coral.) I want to make these pieces exist somewhere between representation and abstraction, and between painting and sculpture as well.

I was starting to feel stuck, so I am just happy to be working again. Illness and the business of beginning a new semester has kept me from painting too. I also question my work quite a bit. Sometimes that leads to a grinding halt in doing the work. But I don’t just want to turn out paintings without thinking about what I’m doing.

Teaching can be inspiring. We did an activity where I had the students find a book on an artist in the library and post something to the fine arts floor’s new “graffiti” white board.  The students seemed to enjoy it and the fine arts librarian liked the idea. There was something thrilling about seeing all those artists’ names together, with bits and pieces about them– sometimes a little drawing, or a quote, or a few facts. One group took a long time reproducing one of Marc Chagall’s self-portraits. I assigned the Rothko and Pollock documentaries again, taught Elaine de Kooning in class. The Rothko documentary is from the Power of Art Series and even after teaching it for a couple years I get so drawn-in to that film. Hearing about Rothko and Pollock’s doubts is comforting when I am facing my own. I feel like I am struggling with finding the kind of artist I want to be. There are so many possibilities. I like doing the work that feels riskier, but I’m also less sure of it. There is this part in the Pollock documentary where Lee Krasner says he would ask her to come into his studio space and ask her, “Is this a painting?” Sometimes I feel like that. Sometimes I feel like I find so many simple and uncomplicated things beautiful that what I like in a painting might be too simple, not finished enough.

I had the students listen to Teresita Fernandez’s commencement address on the first day of class. They seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. That was a new one for this class, but I am planning to use it again next semester. I love Fernandez’s work and I love the commencement address as well. There is a link to some excerpts from it here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/12/29/teresita-fernandez-commencement-address/ and the speech itself here: https://soundcloud.com/user231682255/teresitaspeech

It’s definitely a good pick-me-up when I’m feeling anxious about my work.  There are different parts of the address that speak to me more at different times. Today, this one, “And lastly,  when other things in life get tough, when you’re going through family troubles, when you’re heartbroken, when you’re frustrated with money problems, focus on your work. It has saved me through every single difficult thing I have ever had to do, like a scaffolding that goes far beyond any traditional notions of a career.”

I love this statement (although I am not sure how it applies if the thing you are struggling with is the work or if your money problems mean you cannot buy art supplies.) Still, I like being able to turn to the work in times of distress. Even when I am having doubts about my direction, I look at what I have made and I can see it has developed over the past few years. I’m more confident that I can turn to the work to ground me because I am more confident that I can produce work I am pleased with.