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.
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.
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|
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.
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.
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
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.
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
|works on paper from Ballinglen|
Last week I was looking over what I brought back from my residency at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ireland--some small works on paper, a few more developed paintings, some sketches and notes, website addresses of artists and books to check out, a book of poetry and some drawing materials I had been given. In that moment, surrounded by ideas, plans, materials, and resources, I was struck, as I have often been in the past, by the idea that art-making is basically research. We conduct this research throughout our lives, compelled to keep learning and growing. Many of us deal with making our livings as artists, and all that entails. But what drives us really comes straight from the heart, a pure search for knowledge, understanding, and a voice to express our deepest selves. The search itself is a creative act as we pull from many sources, integrating fresh information with what we've already learned.
Like researchers in other fields,we gain insights and make advancements, refine our approaches, and contribute to collective knowledge and understanding. But to do all of this means that we need time to experiment, test and develop ideas, and to simply mess around in the studio. We also need to engage in thoughtful consideration, using our critical skills. There is no way to skip over this huge investment of time and energy and to move directly to an end result that is in any way original or authentic.
Although it's not always an easy perspective to maintain, I find that thinking of painting as research is a liberating idea. What's needed is an easy-going patience with the process, and the optimism to regard difficulties as learning experiences. The focus is not on the end result, but instead on what is intrinsically interesting within the process itself--what is being learned, explored, and uncovered. There are also times to step back, to evaluate, analyze. But I try to keep myself in a curious, open-ended "what if?" mode rather than trying to push to a particular finish line.
This attitude is something I try to convey in my introductory cold wax workshops, but I find it is often at odds with people's expectations. In the time-span of an introductory workshop, my goals are to demo a range techniques, check in to make sure they're understood, discuss possible applications in terms of each persons work, and to present information about visual language, abstraction and other topics that will be useful going forward. In other words, I provide a lot of information and materials for research, but the real work must be done on one's own, over time.
I often encounter students, though, who figure they will learn the techniques quickly, then move on to making excellent paintings all within a few days. Using the research analogy, this is like expecting to know the focus of your study immediately, when first exposed to a topic. Artists who are already accomplished in another medium seem especially prone to having high expectations of accomplishment. It's understandable of course--they have things to say and the medium is not cooperating! But when you are first using new materials, it's rare to be able to express yourself in your usual ways, and thinking this will happen can result in a lot of frustration. The successful paintings that do happen in a workshop are often done by those who give themselves over to the process without expectations--or who, at some point, release their expectations. Most people do relax, loosen up, and enjoy the journey's beginning once they accept that a workshop provides only the first steps. The true pleasures of research--the deep engagement, satisfaction, and surprises, lie ahead.
student work space, Ballinglen
All my best to my readers for 2017...here's hoping your own studio research will keep you growing and learning in the most satisfying ways!