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   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.

Saturday, July 08, 2017
  an evolving idea

untitled as yet; 42"x36" oil/mixed media on panel

A change has been underway in my work over the past year --a move toward more defined shape, and higher contrast, and more developed use of line. These changes in the form of my imagery have been coupled with a shift in what the work means to me--its content. 

While I have long tied my imagery to specific places in which I have spent time such Ireland, Sweden, New Mexico and New Zealand, I find myself increasingly involved in ideas that are less referential. Although my specific experiences in these places remain very important, underlying my current work is something more universal and spiritual than geographic. I feel like I am finding my way into a bigger idea--an expression of the rightness and order of the natural world, encompassing some of its intriguing dichotomies--fragility and power, movement and stillness, peace and violence, present moment and timelessness. 

In earlier posts I've written about moments of strong emotional connection in various wild, rugged places on my travels, and that these moments take hold as memories that feed my work. In the past few years with all the travel I have done, these memories have piled one upon another. I wonder if it is the accumulation of so many of these memories that have pushed me into the current changes in my work, That maybe what I am doing is attempting an integration of these experiences, drawing on what unites them. (A simplified overview; the shift has taken many months with various influences, processes, observations and intentions in play--perhaps material for a future post.)

untitled as yet; 60"x36" oil and mixed media on panel

In the painting above, I recognize the source of the strong shapes as the dramatic coastal areas of Ireland and New Zealand, where I have spent time in the past year, but I feel that I've pushed these shapes in a more iconic and symbolic direction. Though the painting is certainly related to past work, I am thinking about it in a different way, and perhaps that is the real key to making changes. In my work overall, I'm experiencing a welcome release from identifying my work with specific place memories, which was usually the case in the  past. 

In some of my new paintings, color plays a strong role in the form of bright glazes over dark underlying areas. Again I am feeling a freedom in using color for pure visual and emotional impact, apart from any direct reference to my memories, yet evocative of nature's contrasts. 

untitled as yet: 16"x16" oil/mixed media on panel

None of the paintings in this post have titles...which shows that I am still in a little uncertain about how I want to describe them. The past months have been a time of transition; the piece below took many weeks to resolve and was the first in which I felt I'd found a place to land for a while. A struggle yes, but invigorating. The journey is young and I'm excited by the possibilities opening up. 

untitled as yet: 42"x36" oil/mixed media on panel

Friday, June 09, 2017
  learning by doing
"We learn best by doing." I've been thinking about this very basic and essential principle lately as I gear up for my upcoming cold wax workshop at Cullowhee Mountain Arts later this month, and several more to follow in Italy and Ireland. While its application for students is obvious, the idea also applies to those teaching them. I've spent the last seven years as a workshop instructor, teaching nearly 100 cold wax classes and around 800 students. Although the basics of teaching are second nature by now, I'm still learning by doing--always tweaking the content of my classes, seeing ways to improve, making new power points, revising handouts. The basis for making changes is that something isn't working as well as it could--I never feel that things are all nailed down and perfect. Writing the cold wax book with Jerry McLaughlin (Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations, Squeegee Press 2017)  was another huge exercise in learning by doing, as will be the upcoming video to be released next year. Such projects are daunting at first, yet fueled by vision and motivation they unfold.  

photo by Phyllis Lasche

My friend Phyllis likes to remind me of a time in 2010 when someone in a class she was taking asked me how long I'd been teaching workshops. When I answered that it was my second time, people gasped. I'm not sure if they were impressed or horrified!  I'm not advocating going into teaching without a solid grasp of the material, but we all do have to start someplace. 

In the beginning of learning a new thing, we never fully grasp the enormity of what we are taking on, which is helpful in protecting us from wanting to give up before we even begin. There will always be frustrations, impatience, and inner struggles. But from a perspective of having mastered something, we can look back and see that all of that was part of the process. It could not have been rushed. Learning by doing has a way of unfolding at the right pace--we try things, decide what works, and begin to build our solid base. 

For students, understanding that the process of learning by doing is long and often frustrating is crucial. But it seems to be one of the most difficult ideas to accept. Many people struggle with an inner need to come up with successful work in an introductory class in just the short time that a workshop lasts. Three or four days into class, they expect they will conquer the material and make it work. Sometimes frustration sets in almost immediately. Yet how can it not take time to take in all of the new techniques, ideas and approaches that are being taught? I sometimes picture the air in the workshop studio filled with the negative self-talk of people not meeting their own unrealistic expectations. Even in more advanced classes, expectations can run high. There is still a lot of new input and stimulation--otherwise, why take the class? It all takes time to process. 

Of course, there are always some good paintings that emerge in the group by the end of the class. But even if things do fall into place for an artist on a painting or two, it does not mean that true understanding has happened. It can actually be harder for the artist when there is success in class--the illusion of a level of mastery can lead to huge frustration once the workshop is over. I've known students whose path forward was made very hard by a painting that was admired in class. They want to immediately do more like it, while not really understanding how it came about in the first place. Instead, it's best to view any successful painting (at any stage of the journey, really!) as a portal to ideas that will be revealed over time. The solid understanding of a medium and approach, the development of personal voice, the knowledge of true intentions--all of this can take years to develop, and it's a slow, sometimes arduous process of learning by doing.  

A workshop is a time to simply take in as much as possible, to play (in the best sense of the word) and to stay in the moment. Even when good results do happen, the paintings done in workshops are best thought of as experimental...as note-taking...as explorations. When students say thing like "I used the wrong colors" or "I shouldn't have worked on this while it was still wet" what they are really describing are not failures, but the process of learning by doing. Every time something doesn't work as we want it to is a small step to understanding what does work. Saying "I'm not sure what to do next--I'm afraid of messing up" is the biggest obstacle to learning and growth. My advice is always to go ahead and try something different, and see what happens. (In fact, Jerry and say this so often when teaching that it has become the tagline for our business. "Squeegee Press...see what happens.")

Wednesday, May 10, 2017
  the influence of place
A few days ago I asked my Facebook friends to suggest topics for me to blog about, and I had enough responses to feed my thoughts here for quite some time. Suggestions ranged over many topics, but quite a few focused on the various places where I've traveled, taught and lived, and how the influence of these locations comes through. Artist Jeff Erickson hit exactly on a current question of mine:
With all of the travelling you have done recently, and painting at both homes, while soaking in the visual landscapes, how do you approach working on a body of work influenced by only one place. You must have visual information overload right now!!
I need to put this question aside for a while,because I'm still working it out. For now I will just say that these days, I'm interested in the unifying and universal aspects of the places I love, rather than seeing my time in them as distinctly different experiences. But I do have general thoughts about the influence of place on my work, ideas that have evolved over many years of artist residencies and other travel to the kind of rugged, wild landscapes that I most respond to. 

A black sand beach, New Zealand

Cathy Byrne asked how I translate visual inspiration to my work. For me the visual is only one source--my process also involves emotion, thought, and memory. Looking back, I can see that over time, I've gone from a fairly literal and conscious depiction of landscape to working fluidly with what stays with me as an essence--a sort of distilling process. I also work in response to my painting materials and methods so I'm not focused on the end result but more on seeing what evolves.

Black Beach #1, 10"x10" 2017, oil/cold wax and pigments on panel 

Back in 2008, as the result of a 3-week residency in Spain, I realized that tapping into intuition, emotion and memory were the keys to letting an experience come through me and into my work. I began to let go of the idea that I "should" depict certain characteristic or scenic aspects of a place, and to allow myself to be caught up in anything that spoke to me. There are usually just a few moments in a place that truly feed my ongoing work, and they may be quite ordinary on the surface. I don't know which memories will be significant until I am gone--it's kind of a mysterious process, but it's one that I trust to provide an essence of the experience as a whole. Of course, I also come away with lots of memories that surround and support the core few, and bring variation and depth to the work. But the core memories tap into something deeper--a sense of longing or an emotional connection to a place.  

Nancy Natale wondered what I take to my residencies in Ireland and whether I make small pieces that I use as the basis for larger ones when I get home. 

small work on paper from residency in Ballycastle, Ireland, ink and gouache

I'm lucky at Ballinglen, because the staff there lets me store some supplies there from year to year, so I always have plenty to work with. But in other situations, I do struggle and have never been good at packing lightly. Over time, I'm gradually learning that once I'm away from home, I work with what I have and rarely miss what I've left behind. Yes, scale is generally small--limited to what will fir into my suitcase. As for the role of this smaller work, it is most importantly an aspect of exploring a place, and not necessarily a step leading to larger work.  

When I'm on a residency, I consider being out in the landscape as important as the time in my studio. So that means going out to walk alone, explore, take photos (which I use as a way of focusing, not as literal reference), draw, or just to sit quietly someplace. At times I feel a very strong connection to what is around me. There is a sense of play to it all..,my inner 10-year old is very happy to be out wandering around, climbing over gates, picking up stones, looking at clouds. 

In the residency studio I often do some quick, small works on paper, using various media after returning from a walk. I feel a similar sense of play as I do when I'm out exploring. I also spend plenty of time on developed work, usually on paper or multimedia artboard.  Although the more developed work has more layers and detail, I try to maintain the same open and intuitive attitude as I do with quicker work. My studio time on a residency is when I process and think, absorb my surroundings like a sponge, and then squeeze a good deal of it back out on paper or panel. 

n A Quiet Light, each 24x20", painted at Ballinglen Arts Foundation, Ballycastle, CO Mayo, Ireland 2017

When I come home again, I don't usually reference the work I've done while away, or my photos, or anything else. I just aim for a clear mind and see what the residual effects of my experiences have to tell me. But of course, everything I've done is part of the process as a whole, and certain aspects of the smaller works definitely come through. Also, a few times, I have deliberately worked on a large scale based on ideas that came out in some pivotal smaller work.  

Fissures #3, 48x36", painted with memories of Irish stones..and stones everywhere

And finally, a question from Kai Harper Leah: "What is it like painting in NM vs. the other places you have been teaching lately?"

Since I am now living half of each year in New Mexico, I can see that my process is a bit different. I'm surrounded by the landscape for long stretches, rather than accessing it through memory. That distillation process is not much in play. I noticed that this spring I was more involved with memories of New Zealand, where I spent the month of February, than with what I was seeing around me.  I wonder if in the end, the glorious NM landscape-- as much as I love it-- will have less impact than those places I visit more briefly. On the other hand, the more time I spend there, the more nuances of color, texture and shape I see. Maybe in the end the influence of New Mexico will be a subtle one. Or maybe it will come through more strongly during my summers in Wisconsin. An open question, so far!

Near Dixon, NM

Thanks again to my Facebook friends for these thought-provoking questions and comments. I will be taking on a few others in future posts, and welcome the thoughts of other readers, as well.  

Monday, March 27, 2017
  the book
A week ago, it finally arrived--my copy of Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations, co-authored by myself and Jerry McLaughlin. I've been waiting to hold this book in my hands for over two years, since the day Jerry convinced me to undertake the project and it began to take form in our shared vision. I tore off the packaging, stared at the cover, felt the book's weight and heft, and began flipping through. It was beautiful and--at long last--an actual book. I felt a rush of emotion and an urge to celebrate, but I was by myself on an otherwise ordinary Monday afternoon. A couple of happy/excited/relieved texts with Jerry sufficed, and I settled down for a more thorough look. 

The pages seemed at once familiar and strange. Countless viewings on the computer screen, days of writing and editing, meetings with Jerry to go over photos and layout decisions, and line-by-line proofreading had pretty much seared most of them into my memory. Yet seeing the actual printed pages brought the whole project from an idea into a new and unfamiliar reality. After living for so long only as computer files, the book now had a physical presence, a substance. For the first time, I could imagine encountering it in a fresh way, as someone else would...picking it up in a store or a friend's studio, or opening the package that had arrived in the mail. If I were seeing it for the first time, I believe I'd be impressed. 

Knowing everything that goes into a book like this is a burden and privilege reserved for its authors. In our case, my own share of the work was considerably less than Jerry's, who not only instigated the project but was its prime mover all along. While we consulted often about various aspects of the book, he took on the heaviest load of overall design, layout, curating, communicating with all the artists in the book, and a myriad of other publishing and distribution details. Fortunately, we also received invaluable help throughout the process from our editor (Kristy Conlin) and our graphic designer (Haroula Kontorousi.)  And we remain ever grateful for the ongoing support of our families and friends, and of the cold wax community at large. 

Although my own workload during the past two years has been comparatively light, it still felt to me at times overwhelming, cumbersome, and nerve-wracking. The writing itself was generally an interesting and creative process, but there was so much more involved. For example, the text we started out with was usually too long or not well enough organized, and needed to be followed by re-writing, editing and of course, proofreading. We had to work out proper chapter titles, chapter intros, headings and subheadings, the placement of artwork, where and how to insert the special focus sections, the content of various charts and lists, the final wording and design of the covers (generously provided by Stephanie Dalton) and flaps. We spent two twelve hour days just working on the photos that illustrate the sections on techniques--planning images that would best show the process, setting up the shots, and finally, taking the photos. Once Jerry had configured the layout of each chapter, we'd usually have further revisions in order to make everything flow correctly or fit into the space, or the number of pages available. In the final months before sending to the printer, we did a lot of fine-tuning and proofreading, It was a challenge then to balance perfectionism and moving the project along, but it was important to focus on the very best result possible.

Throughout the process we worked mostly in our separate locations, with a constant flow of emails and PDFs back and forth. A few times, we met at my place in Wisconsin or at Jerry's in California. Near the end when we were ready for a line-by-line proofreading of the entire manuscript, Jerry traveled to Ballycastle, Ireland where I was on residency. These meetings, few and far between, were always times of intensive work. Once, in Oakland, we worked almost continuously on Chapter 6 from 8am until 1am the following morning. The photo below of Jerry and myself in Ireland was taken on one of only two short breaks over three days. I guess we couldn't believe we were free for an hour!

The ongoing demands of the process often meant working late into evenings in order to also make time for painting, and dealing with art and workshop business. (Amazingly, Jerry did his part while maintaining his medical practice as well as painting and teaching.) 

But in spite of the off and on frustrations, I never regretted becoming involved in the project. All along, I had the strong sense that this was an important undertaking. And I have highly valued my collaboration with Jerry, which continues to be enriching and dynamic. 

Once he asked me what the book meant to me. It took me a moment to answer, to step back and gain a little perspective. But the answer was clear. Although I have been teaching and writing my blog for years, and making a few notes in sketchbooks, I'd never before tried to pull together the various threads of 40 years of experience and weave them into one coherent form. In doing so, this book became for me a kind of closure. I'm very gratified to have so much of what I've learned, taught, written and thought about over the years complied in one place and organized in such a way that others can learn from it. 

Notes from 2007... I had started getting questions from other artists about cold wax and had the idea that I should record something about the techniques I'd been working out in my studio. This was written about six years after I first started using cold wax, and a few years before I started teaching workshops.)

Of course, our new book is much more just my own contributions, and Jerry's--it ranges into the words and work of the many other artists who participated. I love the depth that this brings to the overall content, and I've learned from the other artists. My own use of cold wax medium has always been fairly straight forward--mixing it with paint, and sometimes adding sand, pigments or powders. But seeing the wide range of approaches by artists in the book has had an effect on me. In terms of technique, I'm now more involved in using washes, pours, and pigment sticks. In recent paintings, I've also been exploring a slightly collage-like attitude--not literal collage, but the idea of sectioning parts of the painting with underlying geometry into areas of different but related passages. Certain collage and experimental artists featured in the book intrigued me and I think had some subtle influence.  

Coromandel 20"x16" oil/cold wax/pigment on panel. 

Now, as I leaf again through the book, I wonder what lies ahead in the coming months. As partners at Squeegee Press, Jerry and I are already planning new projects and events. Marketing and wider distribution challenges await us--we'd love to see our book embraced by workshop instructors, public libraries, and the academic community. The support from the community of cold wax artists has been strong from the beginning and continues to grow. 

In the immediate future, the books will be available on Shopify in mid-May, and if you like, you can PRE-ORDER your copy now using this link. If you ordered a copy during our crowd-funding campaign last summer, your book will be on its way as soon after they arrive as we can make it happen (the predicted date of the shipment arrival is April 7th, but that is by boat from China, so I suppose it is not absolute.) I'll be in the Bay Area the week they arrive to help with signing, and I'm sure Jerry and I will do a little celebrating too! We hope that if you choose to own our book, it will a valued resource and a delight for years to come. 
Saturday, March 04, 2017
  new zealand

Since my last post, I’ve been to New Zealand for three weeks, teaching two workshops, and exploring many coastal and inland areas around Auckland with my Squeegee Press partner, Jerry McLaughlin, and Norma Hendrix of Cullowhee Mountain Arts. As I write this, part of me is still walking a black beach; these sublime expanses of volcanic sand were my favorite places of all that we experienced.

There was so much beauty everywhere, though--so many spectacular places and interesting sights, such good camaraderie and excellent workshop sessions--that is hard to re-enter ordinary life (even though I when I returned, it was to our place in New Mexico, which is its own kind of paradise.) The first night I was back, I dreamed about paintings all night. These were compelling abstract images that I felt directed to paint. At one point I woke up and thought of looking for my sketchbook, which was someplace in the jumble of my unpacked luggage. But I told myself I would remember the images, and fell back asleep. In the morning, the more specific ideas and images were gone. I was left only with an impression of light, misty atmosphere, oddly shaped islands, and dark sand. At first I was disappointed. But then I recognized the impressions that I had retained. This was how it was on Karekare, one of the most beautiful black sand beaches that we visited. The dreams had distilled for me a memory that seems now to me the essence of the trip as a whole.

This was a gift, because my work is about expressing essence. In the midst of travel, identifying what is most meaningful to me--and will ultimately influence my work--is usually not clear; sensory impressions, thoughts and feelings crowd together, especially when there is little solitude or down time. In New Zealand, the days were full and sometimes exhausting, and I never took the time to write notes or draw, or do anything other than a few quick paintings during the workshops to process the experience. But every time we went exploring, I was taking it all in. I felt very present and observant, and focused in the way that travel opens the eyes.

I did take a lot of photos. For me, photography is another aspect of being present, an exercise in seeing and appreciating the reality of the moment. I never directly reference photos in the studio, but find that there is an alignment between what I paint and what I choose to photograph.

When I paint, it is memory that serves me best. And of the many memories the New Zealand trip, there will be only a few that impact my work. Until I am alone in my studio, back home after such a trip, I don’t know what these will be, or in what ways they will be expressed. The process of filtering out these essential memories is mysterious and intriguing to me. I often feel that there is symbolic or archetypal meaning in what comes through, yet there is no need to understand or explain. There are simply compelling visual ideas to explore.

Karekare, 24x36", oil, sand, cold wax on panel

For the past few days I’ve been in my little New Mexico studio, a bit jet-lagged but impatient to resume work. The remaining fragments of my painting dreams are an intriguing and elusive guide as I feel my way into new pieces. The fact that my dreaming brain was so active in this way makes me believe that the process of finding essence is working at a deep level, and that is exciting. On the other hand, I try to avoid expectations about what will evolve in the studio—my basic approach is to give myself over to intuitive moves, while making choices that build strong work. While I can be guided by a particular mood or visual idea, for the most part I don’t work with specific goals in mind. My night of painting dreams left me with a sense of sweet mystery and beautiful possibility, but I need to trust in my own way of working to find my way there.  
Saturday, February 04, 2017
  New Mexico reflections

I’ve been in New Mexico for five weeks now, as work progresses on the old adobe building that will be our winter home.  We’re fortunate to have some very skilled and dedicated workers, all local guys, who not only roof, patch up adobe and plaster, pour concrete, and build bancos, but also offer helpful suggestions about how to approach some of the unique aspects of adobe remodeling. Watching their work makes me truly appreciate the connection between adobe buildings and the land, and the long traditions involved in making these earth homes beautiful and practical.

While that goes on around me, my days are mostly centered around painting, walking, staring at rocks and sunsets, meeting new people, and generally enjoying this unique environment. It’s all still so new and amazing to me that I have a lot of moments that strike me as unreal. Driving up the spectacular Rio Grande gorge on my way to buy groceries in Taos, it’s hard to believe  that I’m on a routine errand. Picking my way up the rocky terrain behind our house, with its vast views on all sides, I try to take in that this is home for at least part of the year.

I am incredibly grateful to be here and for me, the best way to express this is through my work. I’ve been painting some fairly large panels (36”x48”) as well as smaller works on panel and paper. I continue to see the effects of this arid, angular and textural environment in my work. In some ways, this feels fresh and new, and in other ways there is a continuation of ideas that began back in Ireland in the fall--such as including more distinctive shapes and higher contrast. That seems right to me, that form can shift to accommodate new input yet retain the threads of ideas that are worth exploring.

Azure, 36x48" oil/coldwax/pigments on panel

My adobe studio, one of two outbuildings on the property, is tiny and closed-in compared to the one in Wisconsin—I have about 12 feet each way of usable floor space, and just one small, unglazed window, which I need to keep covered on chillier days. I have several strong, LED  lights and spotlights, so the lighting is OK—it’s more that the lack of windows gives it the feeling of being in a cave! When my window is covered, the day can go from light to dark without me ever realizing it. But on sunny, warm winter days though (such a treat to a Wisconsinite) I can open my front door to let in light and air.

Working in such a small space is something of a challenge. But I am adapting.  I brought only minimal supplies from Wisconsin, so there’s not much clutter, and the bancos (built-in low shelves or seats that reinforce the structure) provide a flat surface against three walls for storage and work space. Shortly after I got here, I answered an ad in the local newsletter from someone selling studio supplies, and acquired a wonderful adjustable drawing table, two floor lights, and a few other  useful items.

I have to smile a bit when I think of the chapter about setting up a studio in our upcoming book (Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations, with Jerry McLaughlin.) A lot of our advice about working surfaces and storage would not apply at all in my current space!  But we also make the point that a dedicated artist can work anywhere, and I seem to be testing that theory at the moment. In the future, I hope that something larger and airier can be built on our property here. But in the meantime, what I have here is more than fine.

As I write this, I am in the midst of packing and organizing to leave tomorrow for three weeks. It  seems odd to be uprooting myself from this place in which I’m settling in and enjoying so thoroughly. But I’m also very excited about the next phase—New Zealand!  I’ll be teaching two workshop sessions at Takapuna Art Supply in Auckland, assisted by my friend and co-author Jerry McLaughlin. I’ll also be enjoying the company of another dear friend, Norma Hendrix, who is the director of the Cullowhee Mountain Arts program.  We’ll all have some time for travel and relaxing together, as well as teaching. I look forward very much to this time of exploring the area, working with students both new and from the past, and experiencing a new culture.

To end on a reflective note, I have debated with myself about whether to post these good things in my life, at a time when many of us are coping with daily news of drastic changes in our country.  I know that the blessings in my own life make it relatively easy for me to hold on to joy, optimism and gratitude. Yet I also believe that Goodness is a universal and unifying principle. As many others have said recently, holding onto the beauty and positive aspects of life is what keeps us moving forward.  I hope that we can all continue to share and appreciate what is happy, abundant and joyful in our lives. 
Monday, January 16, 2017
  looking back

I’ve been at our new winter home in New Mexico for several weeks now, and the beauty of this place, the friendliness of this small community, the cultural opportunities and connections with other artists are all amazing and gratifying. I’ve been painting a lot and taking long walks, reading, and writing. In spite of the distractions of the remodeling the old adobe here, and the need to figure out aspects of daily life in a new place, there are lots of quiet, contemplative moments that ground me in this new reality.

The angular forms and rocky textures of the dramatic landscape here are entering my work, and recent snowfall suggested stark value contrasts. I’ve been working mostly on paper, as I await delivery of some larger panels. 

I’ve started a small personal research project on the side—looking closer at the time of my life (in the late 90s and early 2000s) when I made the transition to abstraction in my work. I remember so little of this, and wonder if understanding it better would be helpful, not only or my own reasons but because I’m sometimes called upon to talk about my work chronologically, and this period represents a major shift. Also, toward the end of this time, in late 2001 or early 2002, I first started using cold wax medium. I know that for years I regarded it simply as a painting medium and not much more, though I was no doubt figuring out some of its unique properties from the beginning.

For this project, I’ve brought to New Mexico some of my old writings and journals. (I wish I’d also brought sketchbooks from the time; they may have been where I wrote about cold wax, if I did at all.)  I decided to just dig into these writings with no real plan. This morning I began with a journal that I wrote from August of 2002 through the June 2003. Interesting that the first one I picked up covers a significant time in terms of finding my voice in abstraction.

Early in the journal I mention a friend’s remark that my previous focus on realistic landscape seemed to have been a search for meaningful content. He said that “my challenge now was to take the substance of that work into new territory.” I found this insight helpful, a connecting thread to my earlier work. It helped me to clarify that my intention was to express the essence of landscape outside of a traditional landscape format. I had, at that point, done some landscape work that edged into abstraction by eliminating the horizon line, but felt I wanted to be less literal.

The following spring, I wrote a rather impassioned defense of abstraction after a discussion with a realist painter: “In abstraction you put yourself more on the line, because many people will think your work has no meaning. I think it is harder, more conceptual, and more personal…I will probably always have more admiration and appreciation for good abstraction than for good realism.” In retrospect (since nowadays I am not so biased) I can see that I was staking out my new territory and finding it a bit risky. I also had a rather polarized view of the differences between abstraction and realism, not seeing the crossover qualities or possibilities. For example, I was not sure at the time that “real” abstraction could refer to landscape or other aspects of the visual world.

An entry near the end of the journal, from June 2003, connects spirituality with abstraction, the idea of keeping open a clear channel and not interfering with negative or ego-centered thoughts. I noted that this gave me a sense of power and of “a force beyond my own conscious direction.” This was a very liberating insight, written after making my first large-scale abstract painting, a grid of textural color fields called 25 Views of Landscape. I can now see that this piece was a milestone for me, a synthesizing of various ideas about abstracting from landscape that had been brewing, yet very intuitively realized. At the time, I simply felt relieved-- happy with my work for the first time in a year or more.

This particular year-long journal, though, is dominated not by notes on process and studio practice, but by thoughts and experiences that are rather painful now to read. Although it the journal ends well, on the above note, it was a time of set-backs in my work and art career along with other more personal challenges. I share some of these in hopes that they will reassure others going through similar struggles. 

Looking back, I’m very grateful for all the positive changes that came afterward, that unfolded in their own time. But in the midst of challenging situations, it’s impossible to know what positive changes we may already have set in motion through our hard work and focus.

The summer of 2002, I wrote about a solo exhibit in Minneapolis in which nothing sold, and about a special preview meant to showcase my work for architects and designers, during which there was much more interest in the wine and cheese than in my work. The lonely, devastated feeling of standing by myself in the main gallery while the party went on by the refreshment table in the next room haunted me for a long time. (Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t try to take charge of the situation, go over to the table and mingle, but I was pretty insecure in those days.) I wrote depressingly in August of 2002:  “When I look ahead I see nothing uplifting…my art career, which seemed a while ago to be on an upward climb and full of promise, now is dead. Those good years (before 2001) now seem like a fluke. Everything I gained then has been lost.”

My concern with sales was not unfounded-- I had sold very little that year to date. The economy was bad, following 9/11, and although I knew this was a widespread situation I felt anxious and envious over other artists’ sales. That summer, I had been working on one large painting for 6 months without being able to resolve it. I described it as a “monster in the room,” after I had studio visitors who ignored it completely. I felt stalled, blocked, and I had to push myself to work at all. The abstract voice I longed to discover was still elusive in the early part of the journal. I was in transition in my work toward something really good, but a transition can feel a lot like a dead end when you ae in its midst.

In my personal life at the time, my sons were young teenagers. While I wrote a lot about how much I enjoyed and appreciated them, parenthood was also at times draining and time-consuming. My aging mother was experiencing an early stage of dementia and increasing anxiety, and depended me for emotional and practical support. I was going through some health issues of mine own that seemed to have no resolution. I’ll spare you the details, but it’s clear to me now how overwhelmed I was—so many people’s needs to meet besides my own, while feeling depressed about my work and career.

Thankfully, there were also positive and insightful passages in my writing. I wrote that my challenging situation made me look inward for the intrinsic rewards of painting, rather than outward for financial success or recognition. “My intuitive sense is that for now, my focus needs to be on the work, and letting some calm trust in the business outcome operate without giving the topic too much of my attention. I have to steer clear of a sense of personal failure…if I look ahead and see ‘no success’ I’m thinking about the wrong stuff… I need to think only about the paintings themselves. I do feel I am on the verge of some breakthrough, coming closer all the time, finding new aspects of abstract language. There is some elusive image in my head, hovering almost like a mirage that keeps me going.”

Parts of this still ring true for me, in spite of the successes I’ve enjoyed in my art career. I’m glad that I no longer feel threatened by a fear of failure, but I can still fall into the trap of leaning too much on extrinsic rewards such as sales and recognition. As artists we have so many lessons to learn, and even when we think we have something figured out, back it comes in some new guise. But with each round of confronting our issues, I believe we do make permanent gains.

untitled, new in my NM studio; 36x48" oil/cold wax on panel

It strikes me in all of this how connected are our lives and our art. Just the one journal I’ve read contains a personal art journey with far more twists and turns than I remembered. I plan to keep reading and contemplating, and if other insights emerge, I’ll share. So much of what we struggle with as artists is universal, and we all have stories that in sharing, can offer solace or encouragement to one another. 


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       Rebecca Crowell