Welcome to my blog! I'll be posting thoughts about art, photos, happenings, and other things that strike me--and hopefully my readers--as interesting. And please visit my website by clicking the link to the right--thanks!
Also please check out my second blog, The Painting Archives to see older (pre-2004) paintings for sale.
looking ahead: summer classes and ireland
As winter finally melts away in Wisconsin (we had snow just last week) my plans for summer and fall are taking on more reality. I have planned for some down time in between various workshops and exhibits, but it will be a busy time from now through November. A brief run-down of what is ahead:
Later this month, the first Oil&Wax Master class will convene at Shake Rag Alley
in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. It's been very gratifying to follow the progress of many of the artists who have come to both my Introductory and Level Two workshops over the past four years, and I look forward to welcoming a group of these experienced painters to this advanced level class. I envision it as a sort of mini-conference, with presentations by several of class members, discussions, new ideas, suggested projects, and a focus on finding one's artistic voice. The class will end on Saturday night with an opening at Brewery Pottery Gallery for Explorations: 13 Journeys in Oil and Cold Wax Medium
--perhaps the first invitational exhibit of cold wax paintings ever...featuring members of the Master Class and last year's Level Two class at Shake Rag Alley. I am hoping to hold more Master Classes in the future, as I know that interest level is high for this advanced class.
In June I will spend two weeks teaching at Cullowhee Mountain Arts on the campus of Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC--first a Level Two class and then an Intro level (the level two class is filled; there are still openings in the Intro class--click here
for more information.) This is my second year teaching at CMA, and I highly recommend the program--a week-long, intensive immersion experience in the studio and elsewhere, with evening programs and the opportunity to meet faculty and students from various disciplines. The photo below is from last year's class at CMA:
July will be a month in the studio, for finishing and shipping the paintings for Beneath the Surface
, my solo show at the Pratt Museum
in August in Homer, Alaska. At the very end of the month, I'll fly to Homer to help install the show and attend the opening on Aug. 2nd. After that, I head to Anchorage to teach an Oil&Wax Workshop (now full) and visit with relatives. Before coming home in mid-August, I'll return to Homer to teach a two day Intro workshop at Kenai Peninsula College, August 9-11. There are openings in this class--click here
for more details.
September 6-9 I will be in Telluride, CO for an introductory Oil&Wax Workshop
--spaces are still available. This gorgeous mountain town is one of my favorite places to teach and visit. The photo below was taken several years ago as I rode the gondola between Telluride and Mountain village on a brilliant fall day.
And then, the trip that looms largest in my mind--I leave in early October for the Ballinglen Arts Foundation
in County Mayo, Ireland, for a six-week residency. It is an honor to have been granted a BAF Fellowship, which includes my own cottage and a beautiful studio at the foundation's Centre, in the village of Ballycastle, about a mile from the sea. (The photo at the top of this post is of the village of Ballycastle.) I haven't decided yet what I will focus on in my work, but it will probably be a continuation of my explorations in water-based mixed media that I have done during past residencies. The Foundation hosts 4 or 5 artists at a time and many stay for a considerable length of time, so I am looking forward to meeting and working with the others whose residencies coincide with mine.
Several months ago I inquired about the possibility of teaching an Oil&Wax Workshop during my first week at Ballinglen, an idea that was met with great enthusiasm by the staff. So I am very pleased to announce that registration is now open for the week-long class, October 7-13. The class is structured so that participants have several days of independent work/study or to use as they please. Ballinglen is a world-class facility that caters to professional artists, with lodging in shared, self-catering cottages, and I cannot imagine a better setting for the workshop. Full details may be found here
unity and variety
Recently I posted several new small paintings on facebook, including the one above, Strata #1
, 12"x12", oil and mixed media on panel. Below is another from what has become a series, Strata #2
So far I have also done one larger painting that also relates. This one is as yet untitled, 40"x40."
There was a consensus among the people leaving comments about these paintings that they showed definite change, something new in my work. This is true, but it’s not that I have suddenly switched direction and headed off on a completely new road. The truth is, I always have more than one path I am following. Here are some other paintings I have recently finished—I can see relationships between all of my work, both finished or in progress.
, 48"x72" oil and mixed media on panel. Georgia #1
, 12"x12" oil and mixed media on panel. Geo
, 48"x36", oil and mixed media on panel.
, 12"x12" oil and mixed media on panel.
My studio feels rich with ideas when I have various groups of work in play. And I find that change, when it happens, comes about as a synthesis of ideas. I can see aspects of what emerges as a new idea in other paintings, both in those in progress and in older work. For example, I trace the visual ideas in the small Strata paintings at the beginning of this post to the many white paintings I have done in the past, as well as to all the paintings involving solvent lines I've been doing for the past few years (marks made by dissolving areas in the upper layer of paint with a brush dipped in solvent.) For example, this painting from 2011, Zoco #2
, 12"x12" oil and mixed media on panel, was an earlier exploration of using a variety of marks and lines made with solvents:
I often think about the principle of unity and variety that we all learned about in Art Appreciation 101--the idea that an individual work of art--or, I would add, a body of work by one artist--ideally embodies both cohesiveness and exploration. The strength, the structure, the staying power comes from what unifies the work...the new ideas and changes keep it fresh.
thoughts on abstraction
Last week on my drive home from my residency at AIR Serenbe
, I stayed with my brother overnight in Columbus, Ohio. The next morning, he told me about an exhibit of Mark Rothko’s paintings at the Columbus Museum of Art and offered to take me--and my plans to get an early start on the road were quickly abandoned.
Called The Decisive Decade
, the exhibit traces Rothko’s work through his abstract surrealist figurative work of the 1940s to the beginnings of his signature style color field work of the 50s and beyond. The transformation of his work from abstracted imagery to pure abstraction over a ten year period was fascinating to study. I wish I’d had more time with the work, but here are my impressions from a fairly quick walk-through.
In the earliest paintings, figures and landscape were clearly distinguished. The untitled painting below is c. 1940:
In several other early paintings, body parts were distributed in stacked rectangles in a foreshadowing of his later work. Hints of his later work could also be seen in the number of compositions based on three divisions. He used mythological subjects, surreally interpreted, because like other artists of his time, he believed that myth and the subconscious had power to heal the spiritual void they perceived in society.
In the paintings from the mid-1940s, his forms were no longer clearly figurative, only vaguely biomorphic, and flat color fields and geometric divisions were appearing, as in the work below, called Sea Fantasy
In the next group of paintings, from the late 1940s, blurred patches of color obliterated all sense of figuration, and when I looked closely, it seemed that perhaps he had painted the simple shapes over a more complex composition or drawing. could see bits of line peeking through. So the top layer seemed a very clear attempt to simplify and unify what lay beneath.
From these paintings of broken color fields, the transition toward stacked, simple rectangles evolved in the last years of the decade. Toward the end of the exhibit were several examples of the glowing rectangles of color for which he is well known. There were two especially fine examples--more complex, deep and rich in color than many others I’ve seen. (I have to admit that I sometimes find his late work rather thin and flat.) In these paintings the edges of the forms shimmered with evidence of what lay beneath, and they breathed quietly in the way that I enjoy in the best of his work.
Paintings by other artists of the time hung in the final room, and seeing these took me back to an exhibit I saw at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in the mid-80s, of the early works of the Abstract Expressionists--called The Interpretive Link.
I've been intrigued ever since by the ways this group of artists moved through abstract surrealist figures and landscapes into the formalized, distinctive styles with which they were known in the 50s. The Interpretive Link exhibit featured works on paper by many of the big names, Pollock, deKooning, Motherwell and Rothko among them.
The exhibit at the Walker made such an impression on me because at the time, I was just starting my own journey into abstraction, and concerned with finding my authentic voice. In fact, the work I had just completed during my graduate studies was similar in content to the surreal abstraction of the show. It was emotional, raw work, full of odd creatures, body parts, and spacial illusions, such as this painting from 1984, Desert Forms
It was fascinating for me to see how others had gone down this path, and to know that they did so guided by their respect for intuition and the subconscious. The work in the exhibit was intense, personal, multi-layered and complex. There was nothing easy or facile about it, and this was intimidating as well as inspiring to me as a young artist.
I think of these exhibits now in light of the workshops I teach, and the desire of so many artists to understand and explore abstraction. It seems to me that finding one’s authentic path in abstraction may require a period of soul searching in the studio, a dig into the subconscious where all is not pleasing and comprehensible. A period of creating work that has nothing to do with the art market or pleasing others. From these murky places in the mind, unique, powerful abstraction can evolve. It is not the only path, I'm sure, but for those who struggle to find an abstract voice, I believe it is one worth considering.
work at serenbe
My main focus at AIR Serenbe
(near Atlanta, Georgia, where I am artist in residence until April 4th) has been on work for my solo exhibit, Beneath the Surface
, to be held at the Pratt Museum
in Homer, Alaska, opening August 2nd, 2013. I'm very grateful for this time and opportunity to hone in on my ideas and to spend long days in the spacious, airy studio here.
The idea for Beneath the Surface
grew out of a conversation I had about two years ago in my studio, with my brother Aron (Dr. Aron Crowell, Director of Arctic Studies at the Anchorage Museum.) He said that my work evoked for him certain aspects of archaeology—the weathered looking surfaces, the layering and stratification evident in my process. He also thought that some of the linear elements in my work resembled the drawings that he and other archaeologists make to describe the geology and features when excavating a site (called stratigraphic drawings.)
As a result of this talk, we started to toss around the idea that I might show my work in an archaeological context-- to present work that spoke to the beauty and mystery of archaeology from an artist’s perspective. Holly Cusak-McVeigh, the then-Curator at the Pratt Museum in Homer (a museum of Arts, Science and Culture, located on Katchemac Bay on the Kenai Peninsula, about 200 miles south and west of Anchorage) loved the idea and was eager to see it become a reality. Early on, we decided to include objects from the museum’s collection that had been unearthed during archaeological digs. These will be displayed in the gallery along with the paintings, to honor the source of the ideas for the work and in the hopes that a visual bridge will be created between the ancient objects and the contemporary art work.
My nephew, composer David Crowell
, also became involved in the exhibit--he and I were interested in the collaborative aspect of producing sound and images that would work together, and he wrote and recorded a score specifically for the show. These compositions will be played in the gallery during the show to enhance the contemplation of the work and reference his knowledge and experience of the Kenai Peninsula, where he has spent considerable time.
Holly Cusak-McVeigh has since left her position at the Pratt for a teaching post in Indiana, but continues to be involved in suggesting source ideas and references, and her input has been very valuable. I was able to spend a day with her on my way to Serenbe earlier this month, and we shared some wonderfully intense hours of brainstorming for the exhibit. She and my brother have both provided me with lots of useful background information, suggestions and answers to questions that arise as I work. Obviously, I am not an archaeologist (though I’ve had an interest in it for years) and being able to turn to these experts with questions has been informative and stimulating for my artist’s brain.
Preparing for this exhibit has occupied much of my time and thought at AIR Serenbe. It has been a challenge because my work does not typically arise from a specific theme—coming intuitively as it does, from my experiences in life and travel. But in this case, I have needed to step outside my own frame of reference to explore one defined by the exhibition proposal, and the mission of the Pratt Museum. While the Pratt has a fine art gallery where my work will be displayed, it is primarily a museum of culture and history, and all art exhibits need to be keyed in some way to the specific area and those who live (and have lived) in the region.
To that end, as I paint I am referencing several books ( edited and written in part by my brother) about the region and its long history, photos of artifacts from the Pratt, copies of stratigraphic drawings and other information provided by Aron and Holly--as well as memories of my own from visiting the area back in 1999, and memories of archaeological digs I participated in during my teens. Since the basic idea for the show came from aspects of my work that already exist, that bring to mind ancient surfaces and the layering/strata of earth, it is not a huge change of direction for me. There is still a strong intuitive aspect to the work, as I strive to make my images work as paintings while containing ideas that relate to the core ideas of the show. But there is a shift in how I am approaching the work, as I aim to bring in these specific references without being too literal or illustrative.
While I wondered at first if the parameters in place might feel limiting, instead I find them rather liberating. Steven Nachmanovitch, in his book Free Play
, discusses the need for structure as part of the creative/improvisational process, and in this case, instead of my usual need to filter structure from a big soup of ideas, observations and memories, I have a ready-made structure in terms of visual references. They free me from the constant need to figure out the direction of the work. Instead of relying completely on intuitive searching, I’m working toward a more specific end, and this is challenging and exciting. I find that I must call upon everything I know about technique and building a painting in order to get there. I don’t mean that I start with or hold to strong preconceived images-- every painting I’ve worked on so far has gone through the kinds of changes that are part of my process, as I build up layers of paint, color and texture. But having a clear theme and general intentions for the painting provide guidance, and I’m enjoying this rather different way of working.
A challenge I have yet to tackle is writing an artist statement for the show. Fortunately I have some time left to do this, Understanding the work is coming along as I produce it-- I’m figuring it out as I go. Yesterday, after beginning to write this post, some core ideas of the work and the concept of the exhibit came to mind, the beginnings perhaps of my statement:
The beauty of ancient surfaces. The mystery of buried objects. The wonder inspired when vestiges of human lives are unearthed after many centuries. The science and knowledge involved in locating and excavating ancient sites. The endurance of stone, shell, and bone.
The photos below show a few works in progress in the Serenbe studio.
After a successful and satisfying Oil&Wax Workshop at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, I’ve started settling in for my residency at AIR Serenbe, about an hour outside Atlanta. I am luxuriating in the idea of three weeks of painting, interrupted only by an anticipated day or two in Atlanta and a few community events, such as the talk I gave this morning in the studio for an interfaith group—there were lots of great questions and discussion.
First, a little about Serenbe, a 1,000 acre community located about 45 minutes to the south and west of Atlanta. From the description on the Serenbe website
Serenbe… is a national model for the future of balanced development in the U.S.—
focusing on land preservation, agriculture, energy efficiency, green building, walkability, high density building, arts and culture, and community living for multiple generations. With a projected 70% of future building occurring in the greenfield, Serenbe demonstrates how urban development models can succeed on the edge of a metropolis while preserving a vast majority of the greenspace. Serenbe’s ultimate goal is to demonstrate how development can accommodate the need for housing with minimal impact on nature…
There are quite a few articles online about Serenbe, including coverage by The NY Times
, and The Wall Street Journal
. Much of the press speaks about the ecologically conscious building practices and planning, and of the highly acclaimed restaurant fare-- Serenbe was founded by renowned restaurateurs, Steve and Marie Nygren, and excellent locally-grown food (the community includes a 25 acre organic farm) continues to be a highlight of the Serenbe scene.
Though I love a good organic meal, obviously Serenbe’s emphasis on arts and culture is the reason I'm here. AIR Serenbe (a program of The Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture and Environment) invites artists to the community for several weeks, and provides studio space, living arrangements and a stipend for food and travel. Artists are encouraged to spend their time exactly as they see fit—no expectation of a project or agenda, though this is a perfect setting for this kind of focus.
Although I’m sure that some of my work here will reflect my walks in the early spring woods and fields of Serenbe (there are miles of hiking trails) my main project while here is preparing for my August exhibit at the Pratt Museum of Art, Culture and Anthropology in Homer, Alaska. I’m going to save the description of that project for another post, when I have more of the work underway.
For now I can say that the opportunity to work uninterrupted by daily life is a gift I am savoring. AIR Serenbe is unlike other artist residencies I have done in that only one artist comes at a time, and in being here alone I may miss that element of shared creative energy. However, after speaking with the group this morning, I see that there are plenty of Serenbe residents who are engaged in visual art, writing and music and perhaps I will get to know some of them.
In the few days that I’ve been here, I’ve fallen into a pattern of painting, walking and relaxing in this peaceful and lovely setting. The focus on my work seems very pure, with few distractions, and I’m looking forward to a productive and refreshing stay. I am here until April 4th.
creativity and spirituality, part 2
This is the conclusion to the text of the talk about creativity and spirituality that I posted last week. Sunday was the day of the presentation at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Eau Claire, and it was a delight to deliver it to such a receptive audience. My talk was purposefully ecumenical in tone in order to acknowledge the wide range of beliefs of the audience, and at the same time, as personal and open as I could brig myself to be. If you'd like to listen to me delivering the talk, click here
Creativity and Spirituality, part 2
When I paint, I am led by intuition, and what I'm seeking is undefined throughout much of the process. Answers or conclusions are elusive during all of the initial and middle stages. I start with a certain range of colors, kinds of marks or a compositional idea, but then I allow each step along the way to influence my next move. There is always a dance between spontaneity and control, and this has wider implications in life, in living wisely. I find my work to be a continuing lesson in flexibility with regards to what to attempt to control and what to allow to unfold as it will.
A number of painting sessions follow my initial moves, during which colors and textures are layered onto the panel with various tools and techniques. The organic aspects of my work are consistent as source material in nature and in the painting processes I employ. There is a continual building up and breaking down of the surface of the work, mirroring natural processes such as accretion and erosion. After complex surfaces are achieved, I begin to recognize a potential conclusion to the work, and the final steps become more clear. A painting for me is finished when there is nothing more I want to add, or take away…the image seems complete, and as if could be no other way. When I am finished with a painting, it always seems that I have made something more than I could have imagined or envisioned, and I am awed by the mystery of this.
This searching and feeling my way through the work, and finally arriving at a conclusion has a parallel in certain difficult challenges of life. So often, the struggle to reach an insight or understanding seems an essential part of the process—there are no short cuts. The frustrations along the way, the need for persistence, and the willingness to keep at something without knowing the final result are similar in both these creative and spiritual searches, as is the sense of resolution and gratitude when a conclusion is eventually reached. And of course, in both life and art, a new problem will quickly present itself, and another journey of understanding will begin. Often the same issues must be worked through over and over until they are consolidated and integrated into understanding.
While my initial ideas are just jumping-off points for the journey that follows, still my process is not as random or unstructured as it may sound. I work within parameters that I've discovered over years of making art, that suit me--the individualized abstract language that I have developed, certain art materials and techniques that define my work as mine. These form a steady base from which I make my explorations.
In terms of spirituality, this base can be compared to the basic core beliefs I've developed over years of reading, questioning, wondering, and talking about spiritual ideas with family and friends. From this base, I take on questions, challenges, new ideas, and life situations. The process in both art and life is similar—what I try to do is follow my thoughts and intuition to where they lead, searching for logic and structure while maintaining an open mind and staying true to my basic principles and beliefs. Perhaps my years of painting have made me a little more patient when making my way through these inevitable mazes that life presents.
In both art and life, I have a sense of trust in this process, that if I stick with it and listen to that "still small voice within" I’ll find an answer. To paint well involves listening to that same inner voice that provides direction and insight in other areas of life. In both cases, I need to resist an urge to control the outcome, and to realize that I have to clear my mind of certain preconceived ideas and negative thoughts in order to receive the clearest understandings. In the end the answer or the painting will often surprise me, and seem to come from somewhere outside of myself.
Trust, then, is for me the most important way in which creativity and spirituality flow together, and is an ongoing challenge to understand and fully embrace. By this I mean, trust in the process; trust that there will eventually be a good outcome, trust that challenges are opportunities to discover what I need to know, trust in a power and presence beyond my own understanding. This trust arises from a core spiritual belief that what is good is the only true reality. Goodness, truth, intelligence, love, and what endures over time are all aspects of spirituality that are central to my work, and to where I find meaning in life, and all relate back to trust.
Since it is about trust, painting for me, then, is essentially a very optimistic and spiritual activity. I believe that growth is inevitable, and that there are no backward steps. Searching, questioning, creating and ultimately trusting in good…these are very deeply satisfying, essential, and spiritual aspects of my work.
I close with two quotes that speak beautifully to trust in the process of searching and discovering.
First, this verse from the Bible, Mathew 7:7, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”
And from Ralph Waldo Emerson: Life is a journey, not a destination.
creativity and spirituality, part one
This Sunday, I'm presenting a talk at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Eau Claire (Wisconsin) on the topic of spirituality and creativity. With such a broad topic, I thought of a number of interesting approaches, but in the end I decided to start with the text from a similar talk I gave at the same church back in 2006. When I looked over my old speech, I realized that the intervening years had given me plenty to add and clarify, but that the basic ideas still held true. Not that rewriting and tweaking were easy--I have spent quite a few hours revising the original in the past week. It's a bit long, so what you will read below is just the first part.
CREATIVITY AND SPIRITUALITY
I would like to say first that I regard creativity as an essential human quality. Defined broadly, we all create in order to live. There is no aspect of life into which creativity doesn't enter in some way-the necessity to order and structure and to problem-solve, the urge to make more beautiful or more efficient is universal. Creativity manifests in each of us, in our relationships, in our vocations and avocations, and in how we meet the challenges of daily life.
I believe the same thing is true about spirituality, that it is an essential human quality, however we each define it. Whether we believe in God (in any of God’s many manifestations) or in a universal life force or energy, or in only the concrete and definable; whether mysteries and questions are at our centers, or strong core beliefs. All are individual expressions of spirituality. The ways in which these basic attributes of creativity and spirituality intersect and flow together are as unique in each of us as any other combination of characteristics in our human souls.
Those of us who work in the arts have a special focus on the meeting of creativity and spirituality, since we are intent on creating things of meaning and beauty with which we hope to connect with other people. Most of us seek not a superficial connection, but one that evokes emotions, recognition, memories, associations, and experiences beyond words. Our ideas come from deep within our own experiences and memories, and to express these is an act of faith that others will understand and respond. A professor of art once told me, the more personal your work is, the more universal it will be, and this gets to the heart of the artist’s quest for self-expression as a path to communicate with others and to find common ground.
What I want to talk about today is first, a little about my work, both the paintings themselves and my process. And also how my work intersects with, arises from, and contributes to my spirituality. I am very grateful to have painting in my life as a means of self-discovery, which includes spiritual discovery. Some of the most important lessons I have learned have come through my work, and they are continually reinforced and deepened by it.
I offer all of this in the hope that there are parallels to your own creative and spiritual endeavors, whatever they may be, and to encourage you to explore creative expression if you feel, but have resisted the urge.
I would like to begin with the paintings themselves. First, they are abstract in style, a way of working that for me offers the greatest range of self-expression and depth. An abstract artist develops a personal vocabulary of marks, colors, compositions and textures that can be endlessly manipulated, and draws upon subjective material from personal experience, as well as from what is observed in the visual world. I have gravitated to abstraction because for me it is the most inclusive expression of life, encompassing both inner and outer aspects of perception. In my case, my work has evolved from painting the landscape, which I did in a more realistic way for years, in combination with many other sources of ideas, and aspects of pure abstraction such as color fields and geometric divisions.
My paintings are carefully worked, multi-layered, and dense with subtle texture and color shifts. Built up through numerous layers of oil paint and wax medium, the surfaces are subtle and nuanced, yet complex. The end result is work that I hope and believe has a calming, peaceful presence for the viewer. I want these to be the kind of paintings that over time, reveal more of themselves, rather than ones that can be taken in at a glance. So, my aim for the paintings themselves is to bring some aspect of spirituality into the environment in which they hang. I hope that they inspire contemplation, a pause to look deeply, to clear the mind, and to offer relief from daily concerns.
Interestingly enough, the act of painting itself creates a kind of meditative or spiritual state of mind for me, and perhaps this comes through in the work. When I paint, I'm both inside and outside of my work—I’m aware that it comes from deep in my consciousness, and feel connected with its very personal roots--but I also know that others will view it without access to this understanding, and see it through the filters of their own perception. So I am an observer of my paintings even as I create them, aware of their source but also slightly detached from them as I imagine viewing them from another’s perspective. This non-attachment and observation of the self has the effect of bringing and keeping one in the present moment, since there is a necessary detachment from ego and daily mind. When I am painting, I can be absolutely present in the moment for long stretches of time. The ordinary mind in which events and conversations are rehashed, to-do lists are created and various speculations and emotions are given free reign, is often transcended. In this way, painting can be very much a state of meditation.
Being present in the moment is basic to a wide range of spiritual beliefs and practices, beyond the scope of this talk or my own knowledge. I will simply say that this state of mind is calming and centering, and it is part of my life almost every day.
There are other spiritual benefits in the process of painting. For example, my thoughts and emotions are always focused on the journey itself, the search for the next step as the painting is created, not on the end result. This focus enables me to let go of piece after piece of my personal history as my paintings go out into the world, because once the process is complete, I feel that my part is done and I am ready to move on. This resonates with universal spiritual teachings that advise against attachment to the past and to material objects. There is a continual letting go, releasing, and putting aside of the past inherent in the process.
(To be continued...)