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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.


Monday, January 13, 2020
  working through


As the new year begins, I'm indulging in a little introspection about my work in 2019. It was a year of rapid change for my paintings and I am still feeling a little jet-lagged from the journey. Although I began the year with energy, focus, and strong direction--and maintained that through the summer--by September I was feeling muddled, lacking clarity and purpose. Somehow I did come up with a few good paintings, but basically, I was stalled, and it took months to work through the situation. 

In retrospect, I can see that I wasn't lacking ideas--actually, I had too many. Looking back, I can see that I was attempting to process too many dissimilar ideas and experiences without a common thread or concept. As a result, I lost clarity and focus and struggled throughout the fall and early winter to get back on track. 

The year began with work for a show in February 2019 at Thomas Deans Fine Art in Atlanta. My focus was primarily an exploration of form, with landscape and architectural references from time spent in Ireland and Spain. Solid shapes, strong value contrast, and a limited palette were the main components of these paintings--not new ideas for me but an interesting new fusion, and the work went well. 



Journeys, Thomas Deans Fine Arts, Atlanta, February 2019

In March, I was in Ireland at Ballinglen Arts Foundation working on a series of small paintings, interpretations of a long poem, Squarings, by Seamus Heaney--taking the first steps toward a scheduled show on the theme of poetry in 2020. These had some aspects of form in common with the previous series, but working with poetry was a more conceptual challenge. I really enjoyed expanding my process in this direction. 



Squarings series in my studio at Ballinglen Arts Foundation, March 2019

The next series came after a month in Greece in May when I became excited about working with some new visual references-- the objects and ruins of antiquity that I saw in Athens. Curved shapes like vessels entered my work, along with a sense of compressed, shallow space. I was so fired up about this direction that an entire body of work, including the large paintings pictured below, evolved in just over a month. This was the work I showed in July for a solo exhibit at Addington Gallery in Chicago.



Overlays exhibit, Addington Gallery, July 2019

Jumping around and responding to so much input had its consequences though. Only a few months after the show of Greece-inspired work, I became frustratingly detached from those ideas. They had played themselves out quickly, which upset me because I felt that this work was some of my best. I managed to squeeze out a few more paintings in the series but the energy behind them was fading.

In late October I was back to our place in New Mexico for the winter. Surrounded by that magnificent landscape, I played around with a return to the kind of work I'd done in previous winters, abstracted references to rocks, canyons, and arroyos. But too much had happened in the meantime, and I was still clinging to the hope that I could revive my inspiration from Greece. I kept vacillating between these two visual sources which had little in common. And it was not just the imagery I wrestled with. Those questions of form that I'd explored for my Atlanta show were also part of the mix. I spent a lot of days covering up whatever I had painted the day before and getting nowhere. Making strong shapes, then thinking them too strong... introducing color and then painting it back to neutral...playing with edges that were either too emphatic or too weak.  



studio view in NM, November

During this time I did a lot of successful small paintings on paper, helpful to my mood and perhaps to my progress. But what finally pulled me out of this slump was returning to the most constant thread of the year --painting in response to the poetry of Seamus Heany. Working with this theme previously had led not only to the series I did in Ireland but to two of the few successful paintings of the fall and early winter. The upcoming deadline for that work (the show, with Jerry McLaughlin, opens Feb.13 at Jennifer Perlmutter Gallery in Lafayette, CA) has made finishing this work a priority, and with that focus, I feel that I've made progress at last. 



St. Kevin and the Blackbird, 42"x36" oil/cold wax 

I have loved working with Heaney's poems as a point of departure. Responding to his work (and maybe, in the future, that of other poets) is a process that is less influenced by my own changes in location and circumstance. There is welcome freedom in allowing the poems to suggest situations, states of mind, emotion, and thought. I'm not expecting to give up the influence of my surroundings, which has always been central to my work. But I feel like I'm looking for a more intellectual base as well. A friend who looked at this new work yesterday commented that all I need to bring my work into a more conceptual realm is a subtle shift and that he could see that in the painting above, called St. Kevin and the Blackbird, after a poem of Heaney's by that title. 

I'm excited about the exhibit and the opportunity to show with my dear friend and partner at Squeegee Press. And I'm looking forward to what will evolve in the next body of work now that I'm back on track. Times of confusion and frustration are part of the art life, for sure, but fortunately, coming through them with new understanding is as well. In the end, the particulars of this story are not important, but as an illustration of a pattern many of us have experienced, perhaps they are helpful. 



 
Sunday, December 01, 2019
  martin and heaney
A few days ago I sat in the Agens Martin gallery at the The Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico. Seven paintings she created in 1993, late in her life and upon her return to Taos from Galisteo, New Mexico hang in the octagonal space. It is dimly lit, with benches made by the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd in the center under a skylight.  

During my winters in New Mexico I often head to Taos for errands and shopping, And sometimes on those days of running here and there I end with a visit to the Martin gallery to reconnect with my quiet side--because this room is one of the quietest places I know. The paintings, made up of pale bands of blue and white, some with subtle pencil lines, are powerful in their simplicity.  And instead of lofty or obscure titles, they are called things like Love, Friendship, Lovely Life, and Perfect Day. In this way Martin reminds us of the spiritual aspect of our everyday lives and relationships.





I've also been connecting with the work of another creative soul I admire, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I'm working on paintings for a two-person exhibit with Jerry McLaughlin in February at Perlmutter Gallery in Lafayette, California. The theme of the exhibit is painting based on poetry, and I've chosen to read and respond to Heaney's writing. (Please check out this episode of The Messy Studio Podcast for more about working with Heaney's poetry for the exhibit.) 

After sitting with Martin's work earlier this week I wrote these notes in my sketchbook comparing these two influential people:
So much of what Agnes Martin expresses is also present in Heaney's work, but he arrives there is a very different way. I find his work to be a lot about contrast--the material and the spiritual, the earthy and the luminous. Dualities that need one another for their full expression. But Martin is pure light and space, no need for an opposite side that is more material. To enter her world your mind needs to be quiet and empty. To enter his requires thought, understanding, metaphor, and memory. 
But as different as they may be, both speak to me; they both find essence. Nothing is extraneous, everything is honed. 
Although Heaney's work contains a great deal of imagery, beautifully evoked, he seems to inspire my minimalist side when I respond in paint. Many of his poems contain powerful, sometimes enigmatic references to states of mind and human conditions, expressed in just a few carefully chosen words.

The painting below was mostly inspired by Section xiv of his long poem, Squarings. I love how he creates a sensory, earthy scene, and then in the last four lines takes you into a far more abstract realm. This led to a composition of a textural, luminous color field flanked by what began as railroad tracks, then morphed into simple bars of neutral color. That much said, there is more that I can't -- or see no need to -- explain, just as there are gaps in what I can truly grasp about Heaney's words. 

One afternoon I was seraph on gold leaf.
I stood on the railway sleepers hearing larks,
Grasshoppers, cuckoos, dog-barks, trainer planes. 

Cutting and modulating and drawing off. 
Heat wavered on the immaculate line
And shine of the cogged rails. On either side,

Dog daisies stood like vestals, the hot stones
Were clover-meshed and streaked with engine oil.
Air spanned, passage waited, the balance rode, 

Nothing prevailed, whatever was in store
Witnessed itself already taking place
In a time marked by assent and by hiatus.

Passage, 36"x48" oil/cold wax on panel 

Here is a detail showing the surface texture, developed through many layers of oil mixed with cold wax medium:




Unlike Heaney, Agnes Martin's expression of essence is almost confrontational in its lack of imagery. For many people, her work is very hard to appreciate--they see it as nothing, just blankness. There's no story to tell, only very subtle colors and geometric shapes. Yet when approached with an open and quiet mind her paintings are profound. When my own work ventures in a minimalist direction, I appreciate her courage to leave things unexplained and mysterious, yet with clarity and definition in her use of form. 

Both of these great minds, Martin and Heaney, have played with dualities in compelling ways, and their work invites understanding and contemplation. In their lives they created intimate and challenging work that is moving, and inspiring. 







 
Saturday, October 26, 2019
  a commission story
Recently on our podcast,  The Messy Studio,  my son Ross and I discussed art commissions-- how to handle them, their upsides, downsides, and logistical considerations. We noted that while some artists actively seek commissions and rely on them for income, others view them with mixed feelings or even refuse them. There are good reasons for all of those responses--artists' feelings about commissions depend on individual goals, economic needs, and just how comfortable they are with making art on demand. It's easy to view that last aspect as too restricting, but working with someone else's input also has the potential to create strong communication between artist and collector and even to open up new ideas for the artist. 

In my own career, I haven't had many commissions. but enough to provide a range of experiences and a few stories. I've worked on commissions that were difficult for various reasons; a couple that felt like impositions on my time and created anxiety, others that were satisfying in the end, but took many weeks and involved challenging logistics and communications. And then, there have been a few that were straightforward, satisfying and very positive experiences from beginning to end.

In the latter category is my most recent commissioned painting, created for a wonderful man in Madison, Wisconsin, and delivered to him personally last week. When he first approached me with his request, I hesitated a little. I hadn't taken a direct commission for a number of years, and in fact, I had avoided them after a particularly negative experience.  In that case, the finished painting was only grudgingly accepted by the couple who commissioned it, even though I had made every effort to meet their expectations. That left me with a strong resistance to the whole idea of trying to please. 

In contrast, the Madison commission was a good experience all the way through. The collector, in this case, was very easy to work with.  He had seen the small work on paper  below and asked me to use it as inspiration for a fully developed 40"x30" painting. He was fine with my freedom to interpret, offered feedback when I asked for it, and was patient and understanding about the timeline. As a result, I never felt pressured, and the process was enjoyable and free of stress.

8"x6" work on paper that led to the commission of Elemental

I was pleased with the finished painting and was pretty sure that he would be too; my confidence was boosted by the fact that he already owned another of my paintings. But I couldn't shake some nervousness when I sent him the photo of the completed painting. It was noticeably different from the small one he had liked. The red area had become very rich and layered, and in order to emphasize its intensity, I the mark-making that was prominent in the small piece much more subtle. 

Even though I knew I was free to interpret the small painting, I recognized that things could still go wrong. The memory of my last commission with its difficult to please collectors customers haunted me. But, to my relief, the Madison man responded with enthusiasm. Delivering the painting to his home a week later provided closure to a very satisfying process spanning the initial idea, the creation of the work, and his sincere appreciation. 


Elemental, 40"x30" oil/cold wax on panel

As I drove home later that day I thought about how moving it was to be there when he first saw the painting. The spark of connection between Elemental and its new owner was clear. I also appreciated that this was not a quick, impersonal delivery. We had several hours together visiting and looking at his art collection, and he played his beautiful handmade harpsichord for me. When I think of Elemental now, it feels good to know where it lives and who sees it every day. 

My direct, in-person sales are most often small works on paper like the one that inspired this commission.  I sell them in my classes, online, or to people I know.  I love being present when these small paintings move someone enough to purchase. But because I sell my larger work mainly through galleries, this situation is rare for those pieces. Unless it happens at an opening, I'm usually not there for the moment a collector says yes the work. Or when a designer is excited by the potential for hanging it in a public space. The gallery may tell me how much the collector or designer loved my work, but something is lost in the translation. 

The transition that a work of art makes from the studio into the world tends to feel impersonal if you don't sell your work directly. But in the best commission situations, a strong connection to your work is what brings you and the collector or designer together in the first place. There can be a collaborative aspect to your shared vision for the work and mutual satisfaction as the process unfolds. I'm very grateful to the Madison collector for the commission of Elemental, and also for reminding me that painting on commission can be a true pleasure. 

 
Saturday, September 21, 2019
  stepping back
I'm writing this close to the Autumnal Equinox, as cooler temperatures and fall colors are beginning in the landscape around my Wisconsin home. I love this time of year and the shift to a more inward-looking season. As nature goes into hibernation, there seems to be a call to contemplation and creative work. 





This year, in particular, I'm feeling more in synch with this seasonal shift than I usually do, as efforts to slow down my overall pace of teaching, traveling, and exhibiting are finally being realized. A few years ago I started thinking about partially retiring from outside commitments in order to have more time in the studio, as well as to relax, have more solitude, and enjoy family and friends. It was more of an urge than any kind of plan at that point, but it became more insistent as time went on. I wanted to take a step back--not leave anything really important behind, but become more selective in how I spend my time and energy. 

Once I focused on making this happen, there were various commitments and plans already in place to work through. This took a while, but these commitments--the video and other projects with Squeegee Press, teaching gigs, and exhibits--all contributed financially and emotionally to clearing my way forward. In the process, I've paid attention to what brings me the most satisfaction and what can be simplified or let go. 



a recent exhibit, Overlays, at Addington Gallery in Chicago

It's been a challenge to shift my reactions and responses, to change the habits of years of saying "yes" to more than I could comfortably handle, crowding my calendar and over-promising. As my husband pointed out, if I really wanted to semi-retire, I needed to start saying "no" to things! And also to give myself more time when I do take on a new project (which of course, I will continue to do, hopefully with discretion.) That seems pretty obvious. But it's hard to turn down opportunities when art income is uncertain. Committing to a slower pace has involved not only changing my responses and relying on back-up resources but also having faith that things will work out. (I still wonder if this slower-paced era ahead will last, but time will tell.) 

For me, committing to a slower pace has been an evolving process. Mostly I have just recognized my intention, made a few simple decisions, and am now letting my life find a new course. I rely a lot on intuition in making choices and regret some later, but I'm learning.  Semi-retirement is a goal, but a squishy one. Goal-setting is often described as a logical, step by step process--making plans in writing, breaking the goal into short-term strategies, acknowledging progress and so on. Especially when the goal is concrete, this can work very well. But important goals are often reached in a less linear way. I have to smile at the number of friends who have heard my schedule and exclaim, "but you said you were slowing down!" Yes...all in good time, all in good time. 







In some ways, this semi-retirement phase is no different from what many people in all fields go through in their 60s or 70s. It is a disengagement from the larger world to which they have spent decades contributing, and an opportunity to focus on their personal work and activities. Many people find this change difficult, but artists have an advantage. Because most of us never retire from our studio practice, finding meaningful direction in retirement is not an issue. The new, extra time is truly a reward. 

Looking ahead, my 2020 calendar includes two exhibits, three workshops, and a potential residency. That may still seem like a lot. But I hope this will be a pace that suits me. I want to step back, not out--to have less stress, more time, more painting. And to do so with sincere gratitude for all that has brought me here. 



Relic #2, 30"x30" oil/cold wax on panel


 
Sunday, August 25, 2019
  asking questions

Jerry Mclaughlin and I have just finished co-teaching two oil and cold wax workshops in Italy at the beloved Cascina Rodiani (at Drezzo, in the northern province of Como), a green hotel run by Samuel Crisigiovanii and Mimma Della Cagnoletta, who is an artist and well-known art therapist. This was my third time teaching at the Cascina, a beautiful 17th century farmhouse surrounded by beautiful gardens and parkland. 





It was a lovely and intense time--lots of great food, wine, and conversation at mealtime, the two 6-day workshops, and a few days of rest in between sessions in a small village on Lake Como. Jerry and I taught both a beginning and an advanced workshop in the rustic, outdoor atelier. Between them both, we covered everything from the basics to an exploration of form and content and painting in series. 





On a daily basis, teaching means constantly evaluating my interactions with students and considering the best ways of explaining the processes involved. Jerry and I both want to provide information and encourage critical thinking but at the same time, we want to support intuitive and spontaneous approaches--to avoid over-thinking. That's a tricky balancing act. As with so much in art and life, there are dualities underlying the process: spontaneity/control, analyzing/intuiting, enjoying the details/considering the big picture. 




Being able to work with opposite ideas at the same time is considered a mark of creativity, and it frees you from total reliance on one approach but this is not easy to teach. We encourage students to recognize the need for practice, patience, and acceptance of new ways of thinking. Fortunately, in the supportive workshop environment, many people do have breakthroughs in their understanding and in their work. But having no absolute answers or path can also cause frustration, anxiety, and even blockage. 

And it always leads to many, many questions. These include calls for help ("how do I fix this mess?"), requests for specific directions ("should I add orange here or blue?") or opinions on how a painting is progressing. Sometimes people want formulaic answers to questions like, "do you always work from dark to light-- or the other way around?" Often there are objections to what we're teaching in which questions are implied--"I don't get why you say to keep adding layers." Some questions are about the process as a whole or aspects of the art business. Some contain insight and thought. Of course, there are no bad or stupid questions, and we always do our best to address everything. But the hardest questions are ones that arise from fear of failure. This is because the context of the question is much bigger than the specific information requested. 







Something I read recently made me think about the nature of the questions we all ask--an article that Mimma shared with me--her written response to an essay by Shaun McNiff called Ch'i and Artistic Expression. Both of their articles are fascinating to read, but at the moment it is Mimma's line, "The inner beauty of every creative act is the generation of questions, arising from the process itself and the contemplation of its results" that has me thinking. She goes on to describe this questioning as comprising curiosity and the unfolding of the flow of life.  

I think if I could ask for one thing when I teach it would be for questions that arise from true curiosity and a desire to align with the process, rather than from performance anxiety and the need to get things right. I also love Mimma's idea of questions arising from contemplation, which I think of as a calm, thoughtful consideration of what is present. With this approach, a person can still request any kind of information that is wanted or needed but has become a more positive and thoughtful participant in the process.

Of course, I'm dreaming a bit here--although many artists do simply want to learn, banishing insecurity and fear of failure for many is a huge issue. I hope that in offering these thoughts, perhaps a small shift toward curiosity, wonder, and objective contemplation may result.


view of the Swiss Alps from the grounds of Cascina Rodiani





 
Tuesday, July 23, 2019
  creative flow
My last post was about my time in Greece in May and its effect on the work I was preparing for my exhibit, Overlays, at Addington Gallery in Chicago. That show is now up and can be viewed through August 29. There are nine medium to large scale paintings that all relate to my time on Skopelos and in Athens. Each one holds memories and impressions personal to me. But I hope I've also conveyed some sense of the monumental and ancient aspects of the place that are more universal. 

Artifact, Overlay, and In the Presence of Antiquities at Addington Gallery

This work was created at an unusually fast pace. From the three weeks I spent in Greece gathering visual and conceptual ideas to the intensive five weeks in the studio in June, a very condensed version of the creative process was underway. The work seemed fueled by an especially pure, direct interpretation of my experiences in Greece. 

Akropoli and Fragment at Addington Gallery

Usually, for me, the build-up to an exhibit spans many months and references a variety of experiences, sources, and memories. In terms of creative process, it is a gradual unfolding. Sometimes this creates a challenge in terms of consistency--the earliest work may not seem to be in the same vein as the final pieces. But usually I work back and forth on all or most of the paintings, looking to create a body of work that is consistent and integrated. In any case, there is a fairly long period in which various ideas are explored and refined.

With Overlays, my actual painting time was only about five weeks. After the first week or so, I felt confident about meeting the deadline because I was experiencing an unusually strong flow of ideas, and I felt focused and energized. About halfway through June, a studio visitor asked how long I'd been working on the paintings, and I had to stop and think. The answer at that point was "two weeks" which amazed us both. Some of the paintings were done and everything else was well underway. And at the end of June, I even had enough time left to do a ninth large painting, although the initial request from the gallery was for eight. 

Aegean Series, Addington Gallery


Aegean #1

The point of this story is not about how fast I can paint (I don't even consider that to be a virtue!) It is more that there was a sort of magic happening. I feel both grateful and perplexed by this, and wonder how this body of work fits with my typically slower creative process. Was I so on track because I was working toward a close deadline? If so, why wasn't there more stress or anxiety involved? Instead I felt mostly calm, focused, and pleased. Of course I had some frustrating days, but overall it seemed that a clear channel for expression had opened up. For me, the phrase "trust the process" takes on new meaning in light of this body of work. I see again how the creative process offers up endless surprises and new ideas. 

As a final touch, when I delivered the work to Dan Addington, he immediately saw how perfectly it fit into the available space, and he had it all laid out in a matter of minutes.  Although we hadn't gone into detail beforehand about specific size requirements, it turned out that the two smaller paintings fit exactly with the proportions of the two narrow hanging walls on either side of the doorway. The rest fell into natural groupings on the other three walls. Dan said he'd never had an easier time laying out an exhbiit. 

with Fragment at Addington Gallery

If you are in the Chicago area, or passing through thius summer, I hope you will stop in and see the work. Thanks!
 
Monday, June 17, 2019
  upon returning from greece


I’ve been back from Greece for almost three weeks now, so I’ve had some time to process my time there and reflect on my memories. And although I've shared photos and stories with family and friends it's always hard to convey the essence of any big experience. At least for me, most of what I take away from travel is internal and expressed through my work, responding to whatever surfaces in terms of memories and thoughts. I feel that what comes forward intuitively is the true distillation of the experience as a whole. 



From my time on the island of Skopelos, where Jerry McLaughlin and I taught for two weeks, the strongest impact was visual—the colors of the sea under various lighting and weather conditions, the angles of the white buildings, and the patterns made by the hundreds of stair steps we climbed every day to get up to the studio and down into the village. 






The sea colors ranged from dark and opaque at a distance to startling turquoise and aquamarine typically seen near the shore. On hazy days the horizon lined formed by sea and sky would almost disappear. It was a constant show every day—the studio we worked in had a spectacular sea view.

Blue was the dominant color in several paintings I did while teaching and has continued to play a role in the work I’ve done at home, though less prominently. White is the other dominant color in the landscape there—along with terracotta of the rooftops. The houses and other buildings are almost all white with colorful accents and set into a steep hillside along winding alleyways and narrow streets. The pattern of angles that result was always intriguing. So, these colors, shapes, and patterns have stayed with me as aspects of form. They are coming naturally into my new work and give some feeling of the atmosphere of Skopelos, but they were more pronounced in the work I did while I was on the island.

painted on Skopelos, 16"x12", oil/cold wax on paper

What has surprised me a bit since coming home is that the few days I spent in Athens are having the strongest impact in terms of feeding my work. I think that is because what I experienced there was as much conceptual as visual, and bring more meaning to my imagery. The sense of vast history was clear right away in the archaic remains that are still very present in the modern city. Passing by the ruins of 2500-year-old buildings while walking from my BnB to the metro was astonishing enough. But there was much more to be experienced in the incredible museums, on the Acropolis, and in the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos. I was often touched by the humanity and presence of these ancient people and by the strength of their accomplishments—not only the monumental architecture but the amazing realism of the figurative sculpture and the reliefs carved on gravestones. 


on the Acropolis
grave image, c.500 BC


ancient bronze figure




Because I was so struck by the antiquity of the city, I guess it is natural that references to artifacts and monuments, and even some vague figurative suggestions have been appearing in my work. I understand the connection but it has caused me to reexamine the usual statements I make about my work.  For years I’ve cited rugged, wild landscape as the basic source for my imagery. But in addition, in the past year, architectural references have appeared, coinciding with a new interest in shapes, angles, and contrast. And now these unexpected new ideas relating to the my experience in Athens.


Kerameikos, 30"x22" oil/cold wax on panel

In the Presence of Antiquity, 42"x32", oil/cold wax on panel

Artifact, 52"x36", oil/cold wax n panel

Although these new ideas come from outside my typical sources, I love the freedom I'm feeling with them. I'm not questioning whether they "fit" with past work-- just working intuitively, enjoying the process and moving forward. It seems that the further I go on this art journey, the less need I have to nail it all down, to explain and justify.  While working with limited focus has been very useful to me in the past, now the possibilities are expanding. 

I also find it interesting to re-read the original intentions that I set for my work years ago. They are not specific to a landscape reference--instead, they have to do with expressing power, presence, energy, a sense of the unknown, and personal connection, without mention of the source material for these ideas.  So although landscape served me well for years-- and is certainly still part of the mix--it seems very exciting to open up new pathways to those long-held intentions. 

I have more paintings in process or finished done in response to my time in Greece, and I plan to exhibit them at my show at Addington Gallery in Chicago that opens July 12. I hope that any friends in the Chicago area will stop in for the opening on the 12th (I will be there) or sometime later. The exhibit continues through August 29.
 

       www.rebeccacrowell.com




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       Rebecca Crowell