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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, August 08, 2020
  being here
Writing this blog during the pandemic has been a challenge. I'm healthy and doing OK, but coming up with anything original to say that is hopeful or philosophical has led to writer's block. There's plenty going on in the studio though, and so for now, I'll put the rest of the world aside.

This has been a time of exploration in the studio, free of outside demands--the longest stretch of time I've had for just my work in years The walls in my New Mexico studio are now covered with works on paper, media experiments, panels large and small, and even figure studies--they are part in my overall release of expectations, and indulgence in play. This one is from a series made from taking textural rubbings from a rock. 

Figure study, pencil and clear gesso on mineral paper

I'm on another side trip with some of my paintings.  A recent series explores oil/cold wax, pigment stick, and pencil on a background of exposed Venetian plaster. The isolated image on plaster forming its own shape seems connected to the figure studies, and other drawings and small mixed media work that I've been doing since March. There is a clarity to these paintings on plaster that feels calming.

oil/cold wax and pigment stick on Venetian plaster, 16x16"

A friend said it seems that I am looking for a new relationship with the landscape, and this helped me understand my current focus. Overall, I feel that I’m edging closer to expressing experience and essence, and to being freer with shape, mark-making, and texture. This is a painting in progress that shows this looser approach. 

Work in progress, 23x26" oil/cold wax on panel

For a long time, I've painted with an underlying awareness of traditional landscape painting, including horizon lines and a sense of depth. Even my most abstract work has been more about countering these conventions than escaping them. But at times, I've felt the limitations of this dynamic, and I've noticed this more in the past few months in New Mexico than ever before. There is something mystical and dreamlike here that inspires me in new directions. In the past few months, I’ve walked nearly every day in this rugged and strange place of canyons, rock spires, arroyos, and unfamiliar plant and animal life. I am still taking ideas from from the shapes, colors, and textures that I see, but loosening their more concrete or literal ties. 

Rocky cliff near my New Mexico home

Oddly, my most recent oil and cold wax paintings harken back to a more atmospheric approach that I developed in the past. But this new work feels very specific to my experiences walking in the high desert. The arid environment, the textures of rock and tangled deadwood are present as abstract elements in the painting below. But in working on it, I never felt it had to conform to any pictorial conventions, It's hard to explain, especially as I am in the middle of these ideas. Time will tell where this is heading but for now, studio days feel loose, open-ended, and exciting. 

Monday, June 15, 2020
  high desert thoughts

It was not until this, our fourth winter in New Mexico that I started to pay attention to the huge area of canyons, cliffs, and arroyos directly across the highway from our road. Before this year, it was part of the majestic high desert landscape surrounding our town but I didn't think to explore it. As a midwesterner, I'm not used to assuming I can walk in places that might be private. But now I know that, like so much of this part of the country, these are public lands under the Bureau of Land Management. There are no signposts or marked trails, but you are free to wander. 

Once I began to explore this landscape its beauty opened up to me. Now I walk there four or five times a week, always grateful to live just down the road from such a wild and amazing place. In the past months, I've valued this area even more as a place of peace and refuge. 

Just off the highway a quarter-mile from our house, this wide, flat area, threaded with large and small arroyos is bounded further in by spectacular cliffs and odd rock formations called hoodoos. Though I seldom see any other people when I'm there, ATVs have made convenient walking tracks through the more accessible areas. Over time I've gotten familiar with most of the trails, tracks, and arroyos, and I now have a mental map of how to get to certain favorite places. I especially like to cross over the ridge of rock and go down into the next valley, where highway noises and sights of the village disappear. I've also climbed up high to see how the various canyons and cliffs connect in the larger landscape. 

Cholla cactus in bloom in the arroyo

Sometimes, I walk mainly for exercise, paying attention to my fitness app, and sticking to the main trails where I can walk at a good pace. Or I have a destination in mind and head there directly. But more often I just wander and look, and get lost in what I see, the textures, colors, lines, and shapes of the land. The dry, packed earth is a neutral background for nature's drawings--heaps of deadwood and tumbleweeds, cacti, juniper, and wildflowers, deep crevasses and odd shapes in the cliffs, intricate patterns in rocks, the skittering trails of lizards.  

Inevitably these visual impressions are finding their way into my work. Shapes and colors of cliffs and boulders, and mark-making inspired by the plant life and rocks. But beyond abstracting from the visual aspect of the landscape alone, there are ideas and feelings that interest me. In several recent paintings I've built up texture and somewhat random shapes and marks to try and capture the sense of fragile and intricate life forms in this seemingly barren environment. Warm, subtle color is broken by jagged and frenetic line. The high desert is a place of contrast with a sense oif deep time. 

Untitled, 16"x16", oil/cold wax on panel. 

I've also been using dry stalks and other plant remains that I pick up on my walks for mark-making in paintings and drawings. 

Here is a drawing done with gouache and ink. The gestural marks are made with a dry yucca leaf. 

Untitled, about 12"x18", gouache, ink on paper

It amuses me to gather these bits of nature, bring them back to the studio and play around with what kind of marks can be made. But they also serve a serious purpose of connecting the work directly with what grows in the desert. I feel I'm getting closer to expressing an essence of this place, at the same time that new ideas keep unfolding. 

Tuesday, May 05, 2020
In the past weeks, my son Ross Ticknor and I have addressed issues related to our struggles as artists in the time of COVID-19 on our podcast, The Messy Studio. We've talked about feeling blocked, responding to changing times circumstances, and staying focused. We also did a very popular interview with art marketing expert Dave Geada in which I unwittingly played the role of the Old Fogey who does not quite believe that art can be sold online. (Dave walked all over that quaint idea.) Our hope for all of these recent episodes is that they provide some support and uplifting ideas for other artists. 

We record and edit our episodes in advance, and a few days ago while reviewing our current episode, A Call for Change, before publishing, I had a strange experience. As I listened to the recording of my own calm, assured voice, in the actual moment I was struggling with an emotional meltdown. The day before, my usually reliable composure had snapped. I'd heard one too many reports of bad news, tragic deaths, and an unknown future. 

Looking back, that moment of contrasting responses seems to embody much of daily life in these disturbing times. On the one hand, we make an effort to continue as best we can with life in its new guise. Sometimes we manage to maintain an upbeat, confident voice, while other times we feel fearful and sad. From day to day, we try to balance our understanding of the tragedy with a need to stay on track with who we were--and are--as much as possible.  For me, daily walks in the natural beauty near our New Mexico home make me very grateful, but I worry about people who are far more confined.

near my house in New Mexico

I've been working as usual in my studio, but I notice some differences. One is that I have less stamina for my more developed, layered work; I can only maintain a good focus for a couple of hours or less. Yet working even for a little while is satisfying and soothing, a refuge from all the other upheaval.

from the Arroyo series, 16"x12" oil/cold wax on panel

Another change is that I often work quickly and directly on paper, using a variety of mixed media. Almost every day I do something which is finished in minutes, rather than hours.  

I think both of these changes are rooted in the emotional vulnerability that accompanies making art, especially now. Raw feelings make it harder to focus, to have the energy for decisions and self-critique. Those emotions are better suited to the kind of quick, direct work I've been doing. But both directions seem important right now--being able to enter the more solid, ongoing core of my ideas, as well as working more spontaneously. In everything I'm doing now, there is a freedom from concern with exhibiitng and sales. Art business is more or less on hold. I believe a lot of artists are experiencing this and using the lack of expectations to loosen up and try new things. 

approx. 8x10" pigment stick, powdered pigment and cold wax on paper

There is no one, right way for us to respond, of course. Some artists I know are taking a conscious break from their work, others are struggling with the frustration of feeling blocked in spite of having the desire and a place suitable for studio use, while others are maintaining a basically unchanged, steady practice. Art reflects our personalities, background, and circumstances--and although we share many of the same COVID-19 related restrictions, our individual situations vary hugely. Surely this is a time to be flexible and accept any path that helps you find refuge and satisfaction in your work, or maybe to channel your creativity in other directions until "normal life" someday returns. 

Wednesday, April 01, 2020
  in these times
As ordinary life has been overturned by the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of artists are having trouble staying on track with their work. Anxiety over the news, disruption of routines, and limited or no access to studios and materials all make it hard to focus and create. Yet we probably need creative involvement more than ever for our emotional well-being and to feel connected with other artists. 

As many of us are sharing helpful ideas and encouragement, an episode of The Messy Studio Podcast  came to mind that was recorded back in December. You can click here for the link to the episode. The topic is Studio Struggles, and In it Ross and I focus on insights and suggestions for dealing with creative block. At the time we recorded it, only a few months ago, it made sense to talk about a creative block as a normal part of the creative process. Today a block is often the result of outside forces related to the outbreak of COVID 19, and is accompanied by some harsh realities of the changing art world, such as show cancelations and gallery closures. 

Yet no matter the cause, the ways we experience creative blocks are similar. They are agonizing times, full of self-doubt and fear that we will never bounce back. We long for the satisfaction and excitement of times when things were going well. Right now, even the normal studio days of a month ago can seem ideal in the light of our new reality.

Goodbye to Ireland, 14"x11" oil/cold wax on panel

The effect of the pandemic on my own work has been the urge to open up emotionally and to see where that takes me, rather than continuing on with ideas I was interested in before last month. I don't believe that the other ideas have disappeared, but they are being overtaken by more immediate concerns and I'm giving in to that. The recent painting above seems to contain the sadness I felt at leaving Ireland abruptly in mid-march, in the middle of my expected time there. 

The red in the painting below is to me a vibrant color of life and strength. As I worked with this color I felt energized and powerful, but more difficult pandemic-induced emotions of anxiety and disorientation were also in the mix. To me there was something healing about working with such strong color, shape, and contrast.

Untitled, 20"x16" cold wax/oil on panel

A difficult aspect of creative block is self-blame--feeling badly about ourselves because we've gone off track. Working from pure emotion may be a good way back, But it seems important right now to give ourselves credit for pursuing our art in any way we can. Our normal output may be way down, especially if we’re restricted to minimal supplies, a makeshift studio, or distracted by the news and the needs of our families. Our work may seem disjointed or out of character. But this can be a freeing time without concerns for productivity, pleasing others, or meeting deadlines. Whatever studio time we can manage is completely our own.

PS: Here's a list of previous podcasts on The Messy Studio that are potentially helpful in our current circumstances. Have a listen, or listen again...and share...all of these and lots more can be found in the listing on our website:

Episode 105: Why Walk (relationship of walking to the creative process)
Episode 102: Studio Struggles (discussion of creative block referenced in this blog post)
Episode 100: the Art of the Side Hustle
(new income streams)
Episode 99: Branching Out (working in other media)
Episodes 88: Working on Your Website Part 1 (a good time for this project?)
Episode 89: Working on Your Website Part 2
Episode 70: The Importance of Drawing (an idea if your space is limited)
Episode 47: Creating on a Budget (no need to explain that one!)

Wednesday, March 04, 2020
  translations: painting and poetry
My current exhibit (with Jerry McLaughlin), Translations: Painting and Poetry, at Jennifer Perlmutter Gallery in Lafayette, California is up for another week and a half, until March 14. If you're in the area and haven't had a chance to see it, I hope you will stop in. 

My paintings in this exhibit are based on work by the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney. I was first drawn to Heaney because his sources are so deeply rooted in the culture, landscape, and history of Ireland, a country I have grown to love over many visits. When I was asked to choose a poet’s work as my reference for this exhibit, I thought of him immediately.  My appreciation grew as I began to read his work more deeply, a rewarding aspect of this project. His poetry evokes in me a longing for the earthy beauty of Ireland, while his observations of the complex inner lives of humans are profound and moving. Stylistically, his work is built on complex rhythms, meanings, and resonances that have continued to unfold for me over time.

with Ground of Being, 68"x40"

Responding to poetry as abstract painting is a new way of working for me, and I found that Heaney’s words led me to a more conceptual approach than I have used in the past. They led me to use a combination of geometric minimalism, organic textures, and subtle but specific imagery. In some cases, the images emerged as direct reference to certain words or phrases he uses, and other times they are simply what came to me intuitively as the result of immersing myself in his work. But although there are certain images from his work in the mix, my own memories, associations, and ideas are also strong factors.

Squarings, each 12"x12" 

My suite of small paintings, Squarings, is based on Heaney’s long poem of that name. Heaney’s Squarings consists of four sections of twelve short poems each with twelve lines. This geometric structure influenced my interpretation of twelve 12”x12” square paintings. I painted these during a residency at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ireland in March of 2019, while reading and re-reading parts of the poem each day. I set out to complete this series during my residency in Ireland so that I was immersed the whole time in the country at the heart of Heaney’s work. The poem examines dualities including the material and spiritual worlds, the present and past, and private and shared experience. It is considered the most fluid and intuitively written of his many works. The other paintings in the exhibit also draw on ideas from Heaney’s poem Squarings, with the exception of St. Kevin and the Blackbird, which refers to a poem of that name that speaks to me about the creative process. 

St. Kevin and the Blackbird, 42"x36" 

A wonderful aspect of this exhibit was the opportunity to exhibit for the first time with my dear friend and business partner, Jerry McLaughlin. Here is an excerpt of what we wrote for our shared statement that is posted in the gallery:

While the term Translations indicates our shared intention to retain the spirit and ideas of this poetry, our work is not meant to illustrate that work. Rather, our approach is to reflect our experience as readers of the work, as the poet’s words bring our own thoughts, feelings, and memories to the surface. These paintings may best be described as conversations with our selected poets in which each of us adds meaning.
 Because abstraction defies linear thought and exact description, it seems a perfect fit for this interpretation. The poems themselves are complex, evocative, and multi-layered, with no one right way to read or respond to them. The process we both use in our work is also in alignment with dense and layered meaning.  Oil mixed with cold wax medium is built up gradually in layers allowing for complex surfaces and glimpses of underlying history.
 Although the two poets we chose to work with--Frederico Garcia Lorca (for Jerry) and Seamus Heaney (for Rebecca)--are different in many ways, the work that we produced for this exhibit is congruent in terms of structured compositions, organic textures, and earthy, neutral color. Perhaps this points to our shared sensibilities as close friends and collaborators. Without prior discussion we each gravitated to a poet who distills the complexities of experience into grounded yet nuanced words, and this is reflected in our interpretations of that work. 

Jerry and I with Jennifer Perlmutter, gallery owner

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. 



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       Rebecca Crowell