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.
lake logan workshop
I've just gotten home from a week of a workshop for eleven advanced artists at Lake Logan Retreat Center near Canton, North Carolina, run by Cullowhee Mountain Arts.
It was different in many ways from others I have taught--in fact I find I hesitate to even say I taught--it was more that I facilitated. The artists who came have all been painting for a number of years and have an excellent understanding of content and formal elements in their work. As a result, much of our week was spent in deep conversation about ideas, authenticity, intentions and goals. Each artist was asked ahead of time to prepare a short presentation about some of their source ideas and these were astonishing in their depth and honesty.
Of course, it was not all talk. Our large, airy studio was open for use 24/7, and there was plenty of painting going on. Unlike most of my workshops, in this class there was no special emphasis on cold wax medium--many did use it, but others included watercolor, acrylic, and (because there was access to two types of presses) monotype.
At the beginning of class I introduced the idea of small works as a way to explore ideas in a more free-flowing manner than is typical with more developed panels, and I suggested that each person do at least ten small works on paper in a variety of media over the week. The results were gems of exploration and discovery. At the end of class, we each contributed a painting for an exchange organized as a random draw.
Another unique aspect of this workshop was its setting, a beautiful lakeside retreat center in the Great Smokey Mountains. Three times a day, we gathered for excellent meals in the dining hall, and the week also included several yoga sessions, meditation, canoeing, and a nature walk. One night there was a bonfire, and Cullowhee Mountain Arts Director and all-around dear person Norma Hendrix and her husband Eric enchanted us with guitar and flute.
Another workshop was being held at the same time as ours, led by Los Angeles poet (and world traveler) Cecilia Woloch
. With the emphasis on verbal and written exploration in my own class, this combination of disciplines seemed especially fitting. Artists and writers mingled and talked intently at meals and activities, and I think we all recognized the similarity of the creative process in both disciplines as the week unfolded. (Inspired by this interaction, Celcilia and I plan some collaborative aspects for upcoming Culllowhee Mountain Arts workshops that we will teach in April, at the famous Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, NM.)
As an instructor, I valued many aspects of the lake Logan experience. I loved the way that the artists who came took ownership of the class, pitching in with ideas, suggestions and even organizing activities beyond what I had planned. One evening before dinner, I had gone to my cabin to change out of my studio clothes, and returned to find almost the whole class sitting around one member who was sharing a way of appreciating/critiquing works of art that she has used very successfully with high school students--everyone was taking notes and asking questions. Another of our artists was the moving force behind an evening in which the poetry students read their work for the rest of us.
Very special to me were the artists in the Lake Logan class who have taken my classes numerous times over the years. I'm grateful for the way they have trusted me with their personal journeys, and rewarded to see the growth in their work. And of course, I'm also grateful for those newer to me, excited to get to know them better, and hope that we will work together again in the future.
For everyone this past week, there were moments of insight, energizing thought, and transformation--and for quite a few, real breakthroughs in their work. It was a magical week.
thoughts on style
After my last post, about the persistence of landscape references in my work over the years, abstracted images from Mayo have continued to appear in nearly every painting. Several recent ones seem close to representational in their dark, coastal shapes and swaths of pale watery looking texture. I am thinking of these aspects of the sea coast as I paint, while at the same time enjoying a playful freedom with shape and line. (Above and below, Belderrig #3 and #4, 20"x16" oil and mixed media on panel.)
In art history class many of us remember the range of styles in modern/contemporary art described as a continuum. This was a way of saying that there aren't precise cut-off points among the myriad of art styles, from pure abstraction through to photo-realism. A particular abstract painter's work, for example, could be placed somewhere on an imaginary line,between an artist who was more representational in style and someone else who was less so.
Although that is a useful way to explain the big picture, it's not so simple when you consider the life's work of any one artist. Many range back and forth over that continuum over time, or even within a series or a small body of work, and they cannot be so neatly categorized. Within the context of exploring particular ideas, this approach can open up greater meaning and expressive potential.
Since seeing his work last year in Dublin, I have admired the work of the late Irish artist, Tony O'Malley. He was a man who took all of his life's experiences and transformed them into source material for his work. This work ranged from austere wood sculptures to playful, colorful paintings, sometimes non-representational, and other times with images of himself, his wife and friends, and various objects in his world. All of it is clearly his, very personal, very direct. It seems he never worried about whether something was abstract enough, or too minimalist, or too obscurely non-referential. Below, some photos showing the range of his work:
I'm thinking of this in relation to my own recent work, because in spite of knowing better, I sometimes listen to a voice that warns me not to betray my identity as an abstract painter, and which grows more insistent the closer I edge to realism. These past few weeks though, I've done well at shutting off that voice. While I do of course identify as an abstract painter, I am OK with imagery that comes through in the context of a particular visual exploration (in this case, the dramatic Mayo Coast.) The work I've been doing is compelling to me--paintings that seem to need to be painted, and I am including them on my personal continuum.
thoughts on landscape
Like much of my current work, the shapes in the painting above (Ceide Fields, 36"x48" oil and mixed media on panel.) suggest land forms--craggy, textural--set against a pale background that can be read as sky or sea. This work comes out of my time in County Mayo, Ireland, a place where the strong shapes and complex textures of the bog and seacoast captured my eye and heart.
Landscape has been at the core of my work since my earliest years of art-making, and I've approached it in various ways over time--beginning with direct, representational recording of what I observed. Occasionally in these early days I would include a female figure representing "me." Below is an intaglio print from my undergrad years in which such a figure, seated in the lower left of the image, looks out at the scene. I see this now as an attempt to express my emotional connection to the experience of being alone in nature.
At the core of all my work over time is the expression of this connection. Over time my work has evolved into abstraction emphasizing color and texture which seem to me to be the most direct conduits to the feelings and memories I associate with specific places. While I've allowed in some landscape imagery, for the most part I've downplayed the sense of "scenery" (suggested by pictorial depth and obvious clues such as horizon lines) in my work of the past 15 years or so.
So I'm a bit surprised by some of the work coming out of my time in Mayo in its fairly obvious references to what I remember from my walks and drives along the coast and through the boglands. Below is another recent painting, Mayo Coast #7, 40"x30" which includes dark, rock-like shapes and the suggestion of falling water.
Surprising to find these images emerging--but also somehow liberating. I feel that I'm tapping into some essence or energy of that place that allows me to play more freely and directly with landscape imagery than I have in the past. Along with the shapes suggestive of rocks, bog paths, foliage and cliffs, I've also been including lines that refer to mapping, charting, writing and gridlike designs--lines imposed over the surface of the work that counteract its more representational aspects. Some of these lines are adapted from stratigraphic drawings shared with me by Greta Byrne, the archaeologist at Ceide Field near Ballycastle where I have stayed in Mayo as well as from the maps of ancient stone walls at that site.
I think of this recent work as expressing two aspects --inner and outer--of my personal experience in the Mayo landscape. The inner experience includes the the drama of weather and vistas, the gentleness of the bog, the crashing of surf, the quieting of thought, the moods of the time of day and the feeling of oneness with nature. The outer experience includes purely visual observations as well as awareness of ancient sites, geology and geography, culture and history. I'm enjoying the merging of the inner and outer experiences in these paintings.
About ten years ago, I put together a list of qualities that I wanted my work to embody, including complexity, presence, ongoing exploration, and mystery.
Some of the words and phrases were fairly specific, at least in my mind, such as contrast
--which reminded me to keep value and color shifts interesting. Others, like connection
, were purposefully open-ended and evocative. Connection
could mean connection to my own inner landscape and experiences, connection to the viewer, or connection among the elements within the painting.
I made this list as a practical tool, thinking that it would help me to guide me through my work, keep me on track with what I was after, and also to know when a painting was finished. I did find it to be very valuable for those reasons, and for self critique in general. (Click here for a blog pos
t from 2009 about self-critique that mentions the list.) Over the years, I've revised it a bit, and created a power point around it that I show in some of my workshops, but my editing of the list has been minor. The main ideas remain relevant for me. Although I rarely refer to that actual bit of paper anymore, its basic thoughts are now an ongoing and now deeply integrated basis for my work.The original still hangs on my studio wall--tattered, dripped upon and nearly illegible.
This morning as I moved a few things around on my wall including the list, I studied it closely for the first time in ages, and saw it suddenly in a new way. It struck me that what I had done back then was to set forth my intentions, and that they have been unfolding ever since.
Today, more so than a decade ago, there is increased understanding and theorizing about how intentions shape and create our experience, operating in subtle ways beneath our everyday awareness. I realized this morning that the ideas in the list were probably more powerful than I had considered them to be in the beginning, when I wrote them down as a practical tool. They have likely been a force in bringing my work closer toward my highest ideals, exerting influence even without my conscious attention. Perhaps there's a fine line between the two, but what I realized this morning was that the list has played a huge part in charting my course as an artist, and for that I'm grateful.
ireland on my mind
As the recent painting (Mayo Bog, 40"x30" oil and mixed media on panel) above shows, even months after my return from the boglands of County Mayo in Ireland, I am thinking of the colors and forms of their rich tapestries. I will be returning to Mayo and the Ballinglen Arts Foundation
in mid-October for another residency, and to conduct two workshops (there are still some openings in the advanced class in November, if anyone is interested please email
With this post though, I am hoping to re-direct my readers to a newly published post on the co-blog that I write with my friend and colleague Janice Mason Steeves
, in which we describe a different area and artist's residency in Ireland, the Cill Rialaig Project in County Kerry. Here is the link
to that post--enjoy!
what pulls us in
In most forms of art, we rely on some sense of drama and emotion to pull us in--in reading a novel or watching a film, we expect the narrative to contain a central dilemma for the characters. Listening to a symphony, we follow the arc of the music through various contrasting but related movements. With poetry or song we often contemplate some aspect of the human experience via analogy and metaphor, creating thought- or emotion-provoking images.
A few days ago, caught up in a novel on CD on a very long car trip, I started to think about how this dynamic applies in visual art, especially in non-representational painting. How is the viewer drawn in when there is no imagery to create a narrative or set up a dramatic or otherwise evocative situation? What gives an abstract painting (even one that is quiet or minimalist) strength, character, emotion? Why do some abstract paintings seem to compel people to look and look--while others are passed over?
Obviously, this is very subjective territory. What I stare at for an hour, you may dismiss in two seconds. What one juror picks as Best of Show, another sends to the reject pile. Different strokes for different folks, even among paintings generally well-regarded.
Nevertheless, I believe that there is a merging of form and content in really good abstract painting that sets it apart in terms of clarity, strength and communication of feeling. Technical skill along with command of the formal elements of art (value, color, line, shape and composition) create visual tension and contrast. Meaningful content is the other component, with roots in intellect, memory, and emotion--both intuitively and consciously accessed.
In bringing all of this together, the artist convinces the viewer of an alternate reality worth examining. In the words of the famous abstract painter, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Abstract art places a new world, which on the surface has nothing to do with "reality", next to the "real" world.
This, then is what seems to be the engaging dynamic for the viewer--a glimpse into another way of seeing, imagining or thinking. The drama or tension that draws in the viewer arises from the contrast between this unique vision and our everyday ways of seeing and interacting with what is around us. What an enormous, lifelong challenge the abstract painter has in distilling and communicating an inner world in a way that allows others to enter in.
adventures with terraskin
As readers of my blog know, I have been doing quite a few small works on paper lately and enjoying this quicker, more spontaneous approach alongside my more developed painting. And because my own interests often find their way into my workshops, I've been sharing some of these ideas with the artists I work with in my classes. Recently I wrote a blog post for the makers of TerraSkin
, an intriguing paper made of stone, manufactured in Canada, about a technique I developed using their product with powdered charcoal and cold wax medium. To read the blog post, which includes step-by-step directions, click here
. The post also includes a list of US distributors of the paper. I have been using the 16pt weight but it also comes in a lighter weight, sketchbook sized variety.
This is the charcoal and cold wax demo paintings that I did for that workshop:
I've also been using Terraskin for monotypes because I enjoy the way its smooth but absorbent surface holds every line and detail, and there is no need for soaking prior to printing. Although the prints tend to curl when just off the press, they quickly flatten out if placed under a book or other weight. Here is a recent example (6"x4" etching ink on Terraskin.)
TerraSkin also works well for straightforward painting with oils and cold wax medium. Again, it lends itself to crisp detail and fine edges, as well as resist and solvent techniques. Below, a small painting I did while on residency in Ireland last fall--my first encounter with TerraSkin.
Here's a bit more background about Terraskin, as found on their website
**TerraSkin is a combination of mineral powder (>75%) and a small quantity (<25%) of non-toxic resin combined to create an environmentally friendly paper.
**The production of TerraSkin requires no water, so the TerraSkin papermaking process incurs no water pollutants.
**Used TerraSkin paper will start to degrade under the proper environmental conditions of high heat, moisture and UV light.
**Most importantly, in producing TerraSkin, the harvesting of trees is unnecessary, thereby safeguarding the natural environment’s beauty and biodiversity for all living beings.
**TerraSkin also has beautiful printing capabilities and a unique texture and feel. Because the paper is fiberless, it does not absorb ink like regular paper and also uses less ink than regular paper. Images stay much crisper and cleaner because the ink doesn’t bleed.
**TerraSkin is water – resistant and inherently strong and durable.