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.
Two weeks ago today, my friend Janice Mason Steeves
and I talked and giggled our way through the Toronto airport (already anticipating a fun trip together) and flew overnight to Stockholm, Sweden. We spend one jet-lagged, lovely evening wandering around the oldest part of the city, before departing again the next morning on a tiny plane to Vilhelmina, in the far northern part of the country. Although we were a bit shocked by the amount of snow still on the ground (knee-deep in places at Ricklundgarden
, an artist residency in Lappland-our destination) the striking beauty of the silvery-white landscape soon revealed itself. Within the first few days we were out on snow shoes and loving the experience of being out in the snowy world, with its vistas of lake and mountains. The warmth and green of spring at home has come to seem very far away.
Now I can see it would have been a shame to have missed this end of winter display--the contrasts of dark stone and sheer white tundra, the ever-widening clear water on the mostly still frozen lake, and the first small flowers and birds appearing. Some days, spring is in the air, the sun is warm and the piles of snow shrinking almost visibly. Others, like today are gray with light snow coming down. From what we hear, real spring is still weeks away--probably coming near the end of our time here.
All last week we co-taught a workshop in abstract painting with cold wax medium, to a small but dedicated group who made the somewhat complicated journey here. Teaching and painting time were supplemented with other activities which added essential depth to the experience, along with some fun social times.
A highlight for everyone was our day out, when we visited a spectacular waterfall area not too far from Saxnas, called Trappstegsforsen, in the morning. There were places where we could get right to the water's edge.
That afternoon, we drove to Stekenjokk, a region above the tree line on the road to Norway. The road itself which was closed to traffic at some point, as it is still being cleared of snow. We left the car then and walked through a landscape so sublime, it was like a dream of a smooth, still ,white world.
Now that class has ended, Janice and I are enjoying the next few weeks as time for our own work and exploration; we have until early June here as artists in residence. I've been working in mixed media on various kinds of paper, mostly quite small, with visual ideas taken from the contrasts and textures of the landscape. I have especially enjoyed working with egg tempera, seen in the examples below. As always when I'm on a residency, I spend a good deal of time out in the landscape taking it all in, and then allow imagery to emerge intuitively in my work.
I'll post more images of my paintings next time. Painting, reading, writing, walking, exploring and visiting take up the days. Gerd Ulander, the director of Ricklundgarden, has been a wonderful resource and host on our various excursions, and she is ever gracious and spontaneous. Just this morning, a ride she gave us to the grocery store evolved into a drive to a vista point atop a nearby hill, and a stop at the local church that features a striking mural of the Good Samaritan story by the Swedish figurative painter Kalle, who spent time at Ricklundgarden in the mid-20th century. We shall miss her when she leaves tomorrow for an extended trip away, but she has helped us to plan several more adventures for our remaining days here.
To be continued...
I'm writing this in a transitional time, organizing and packing for five weeks in Sweden, most of them at Ricklundgarden
in the far north of the country. That is where my friend Janice Mason Steeves
and I will be teaching a workshop, followed by an artist residency for our own work. The trip is only a few days away now, and as always before a big trip, details and loose ends loom enormously.
My brain is tired from decision-making. Some of the decisions are pretty trivial--the blue sweater or the white one? Some seem more crucial, especially the ones about art materials--how much paper, which tubes of paint, how many colors of pastel? It all gets down to prioritizing space in the limited contents and weight of a suitcase and carry-on.
But of course, it's all in preparation for an opportunity I am thrilled to have, so I need to keep that perspective! And taking time out for my blog is a nice break from all the details of my to-do list.
|The Silence Of Ancient Surfaces, 32"x48" oil and mixed media on panel|
Interestingly, the brain fatigue from making so many choices seems very similar to what I generally experience at the end of a painting day--when I am often more mentally fatigued than physically. While I am perfectly able to continue putting down paint, my brain can take no more. Even though the choices I make while painting are intuitive and spontaneous for the most part, choices are still being made below the surface of my awareness. Somehow, these intuitive moves seem to be as consuming of energy as those pondered more consciously (and there are plenty of those as well.)
I'm often amazed at the number of decisions required to "make something out of nothing", to go from a blank panel to a finished work. Especially in process-generated abstraction, in which the journey shapes the work, every step along the way is a choice of direction. Countless decisions are made, over the course of one day, and over all the days it takes to complete a painting. Including of course, the final, difficult one of knowing when the work is done.
As with any project (including packing for a trip) the decisions begin broadly with choices of panel and general concept, and become more and more precise and fine in the stages of editing and revising. I have always been picky about the last phase--the fine-tuning of my work. Adding bits here and there, standing back, living with it all for a few days to see what else might need a small tweak. I love this stage, when it seems that any small changes are all for the good. For me, this time for making small adjustments is crucial in order to feel the work is truly finished. I'm looking for the point at which nothing more needs to be added or deleted, and then I call it done.
The painting posted above, The Silence of Ancient Surfaces
, is one I recently brought to completion. The final details, a series of dark markings with charcoal across the surface, brought a satisfying depth that I had felt was lacking before that step.
Now I'm smiling, thinking back to my packing-for-a-trip analogy. Today is the day for fine-tuning. Musing about the decisions involved in painting make packing seem pretty easy.
I'll be posting from Sweden next time, with photos and tales of the trip. I hope you will follow along!
thoughts and dreams
Recently my Swedish friend Asa Bostrom
published an interview
with me (conducted by email) on her blog (click here
to read.) She asked excellent questions about topics such as my studio practice and how I would describe the intersection of creativity and spirituality. I was really pleased to have my words available to both her Swedish speaking and English speaking followers. As far as I know, it's the first time my thoughts have been translated into another language.
Asa has also been very instrumental in organizing the upcoming workshop at Ricklundgarden
(an artists' residency in Northern Sweden) that my friend Janice Mason Steeves
and I will be teaching in just three weeks. I met Asa when she came to my workshop in Ballycastle, Co. Mayo, Ireland in 2013. (I love the international aspect of all of this!) When she brought up the idea of a workshop in Sweden to me then, it seemed like a fantasy rather than something that would actually take place. In talking with Janice about it back then, one of us would often say, "Do you really
think that workshop in Sweden is going to happen?" In took Asa's persistence in finding a location and helping with many planning details to see the idea to realization. And of course, there have been many hours of work for Janice and myself as well--an awful lot of them at the keyboard, where neither of us prefers to spend our time. But all of it worthwhile; we are both now excitedly anticipating our time in Sweden.
|Ricklundgarden, Saxnas, Sweden|
Looking back, it seems that many events in my teaching life have begun as ideas that seem like dreams at first. Then, through many rounds of decision making, number crunching, and countless emails dealing with endless details, they have grown to reality.
I am thinking about this now, midway through teaching a workshop at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House
in Taos NM--a beautiful, historic adobe home that was visited by many Modernist painters, writers, and intellectuals of various sorts, starting in the early 1920s--Georgia O'Keeffe, DH Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Carl Jung, and Martha Graham among them. Today it is a lovely inn and conference center, steeped in the history of its famous owner and her visitors.
|The Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, New Mexico|
The Mabel Dodge Luhan House has been in my thoughts for a long time. About ten years ago I was in Taos for a day and took a look around the house and grounds. I was impressed by the atmosphere and character of the place, and stories of its visitors. As I left that day, I thought, "Someday I want to come to a workshop here." That seemed a rather impossible dream with kids still in school, and finances tight.
|the classroom at Mabel Dodge Luhan House this week|
And yet, this week I'm not just attending, but teaching a workshop there. I feel so grateful for everything that has allowed my dreams to move forward into reality--even those hours at the computer, and the stress and uncertainties of planning. The time, gritty details and hard work are not the stuff of dreams, but they are
the necessary groundwork.
|Taos Mountain |
much to do
Since the day in mid-December when my son decided I needed an assistant and offered up a friend of his for the job, my studio has entered a new phase. With Kara's help, new shelves have replaced the rambling counters and piles of the past, and my smeared and dripped end wall has been freshly painted. Now workshop materials, various drawing and painting media, and printmaking supplies all have their places. Best of all, the floor space has opened up and the working area feels much more spacious.
When I first considered hiring Kara, I wasn't sure I'd have enough for her to do. Now I wonder how I did without her--there are plenty of chores as well as larger projects to take on. Since she started working here, she has been putting in about six hours a week at various jobs--she's taped and gessoed lots of panels, sorted out all of my powdered pigments, helped prepare for my shows in January (attaching hanging hardware, wires, and wrapping panels for transport), and organized supplies for my workshop in Tucson in February. Next week she'll help me set up for a studio workshop. Usually when she is busy with these things, I'm painting, and being able to hand off so many chores and turn to my work seems an amazing luxury.
Besides being a hard worker, Kara is also a smart problem-solver, and I find her input and energy very valuable when it comes to organizing. For example, when my paintings were returned from a recent solo show,and there was nowhere in my stuffed storage racks to put them, she took the initiative in dealing with this one remaining area of chaos in the studio. (In the past I'd have just piled them in some corner.) Organizing my inventory--both the paintings and the related data--is a project I have had in mind for years to conquer. Now every painting in the studio is photographed, wrapped and labeled, and Kara is about halfway through entering all data on all of my work that we can account for in Artwork Archive, a web-based platform that is easy to use for storing images and information.
As I experience now the difference it makes to have this help, I'm more aware than ever how much there is to do--always, every day--for those of us who rely on our art for a living. Like most artists in my position, I've done everything myself for years. I'm fortunate that my husband and son have also been able to pitch in with certain needs (such as transporting panels, crate-building, trash removal, and heating in winter.) But the list of tasks and responsibilities needed for making a living from art work and teaching is immense, and also so varied it can leave one feeling quite scattered. Perhaps the most challenging aspect is to always give painting due time, with the demands of business in its many guises.
Once a friend of mine told me that she imagined my life as an artist to be very relaxed and idyllic, lots of sipping tea and gazing at sunsets...to which I laughed out loud. It is deeply satisfying, rewarding, and exciting--yes! And there are indeed many lovely times, quiet and focused, alone with my work. But there's also stress, overload, and exhaustion. As hard as I work, as full as the days are with trying to keep everything going, there are forever loose ends fraying, follow-ups forgotten, and urgent emails buried in the inbox. It's easy to fall into a frustrated mind set in which the undone tasks loom large and seem crucial to moving forward, gaining more income and recognition. At these times, "que sera, sera" is a soothing thought.
Of course, I am wary of whining or complaining-- I love my work and my life, and am grateful even for the busyness and overload, since it means that things are happening and my career is growing. It is wonderful to be in charge of my own time, to shape my goals and feel pride and accomplishment in what I do. But I'm also feeling the urge to tell it like it is, to talk a little about the demands, the stress, and the more tedious aspects of keeping things going--not just for myself but in support of everyone living this crazy art life.
People often ask me how I do everything I do, and the simple answer is that I'm almost always working. To be able to spend a little more time painting and a little less on the more practical tasks of studio practice is a tremendous gift.
color and process
A surprising change has come over my work this winter--my typical earthy palette has shifted to brighter colors--reds, oranges, blues, greens. These are not garishly bright--they are tempered by earthy undertones and neutrals. But the overall effect is noticeably more colorful than most of my work has been in recent years. .
Playing with bright colors came over me as an intuitive urge to follow. It began with the painting below, Quay #1, painted in December with memories of the surfaces of old boats seen at various docks in Ireland last fall. Since most of my work is referential, arising form visual experience, these boats were a way "in" to using more color. I was struck by their remnants of bright paint clinging to more neutral weathered surfaces. I took a number of photos of these boats--see below.
|Quay #1, 42"x36", Rebecca Crowell 2014|
I followed Quay #1 with others-- opening up to a spectrum of cadmium reds and oranges, emerald greens and various blues. Some of my recent paintings relate to the boats, others to the lovely bog plants in Co. Mayo some are less specific or involve combinations of influences. All involve joyous play with color.
|Green Bog, 29"x22", Rebecca Crowell 2015|
|Quay #2 36"x48", Rebecca Crowell 2015|
While i experienced this shift in the moment as an intuitive urge, in looking back I can see that there was actually an evolution of the idea, fueled by various experiences and influences. One of these was the commission work that I completed early last October for the new Sheikh Ahmed Bin Zayed Center for Pancreatic Research on the campus of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX. The designer chose five older paintings of mine on which to model the new paintings, and they were some of the more colorful ones from my past. So I found myself working in a brighter palette than I had done for some time, and on a large scale. At first I felt a bit awkward with the palette, but soon it felt like a natural rediscovery. Below is one of the commissioned paintings.
|Terra #4, 52"x36" Rebecca Crowell 2014|
My time in County Mayo, Ireland this past October and November was another push toward color. My brother Hugh, a botanist, visited me, and walking with him on the bog I found myself looking very closely at the plant life. The bog from a distance appears an earthy, warm brown--but zooming in, it's an entirely different visual feast---tiny gardens of intense greens, dark reds, pinks and purples. These colors haunted me after my return to snowy Wisconsin in late November.
|Bog plants in November, County Mayo, Ireland|
Winter does often make me long for color, but this one has been particularly bleak, with the death of my mother in late January. At the time of her death, I was already well into my new direction, and in continuing on with it, I've felt a welcome, positive energy. It's quite the opposite of what I might have imagined as a response to death--something dark and somber---but color has felt right to me. I am remembering with a smile that my mother tended to like bright colors and often commented that my wardrobe (heavy on blacks and neutrals) was too dull. A painting of mine from 1999 that she chose to own was full of lively greens. So I think that she would appreciate these new paintings.
And finally, the work of my friend, Janice Mason Steeves has had a major impact in opening my eyes to the power of color. Her glowing canvases, some very large scale, are intense and compelling, and create a visceral response in the viewer. These paintings have made me reflect on how strongly we humans are drawn to color and light. The image below is from her exhibit that opened in January, Gathering Light, at Gallery Stratford in Statford, Ontario.
So, while the move into color may seem a bit sudden, it's actually been incubating and growing over the past few months. In some ways it goes even further back; I did a few colorful paintings in Ireland in 2013, although I did not sense a new direction at the time. But I've been dipping my toes in for a while.
|Gathering Light , Gallery Stratford, installation photo courtesy Janice Mason Steeves|
I feel that it is the combined impact of these various influences and experiences that has tipped the balance in my palette from earthy to colorful, at least for now. I love it that the creative process is so complex, the weaving together of many strands of experience and thought over time. It is magic to see how all the various influences--many not even consciously recognized in the moment--combine in such a way that they to pull us into new territory.
Workshop in Sweden
My friend and colleague Janice Mason Steeves and I have just published another in our series of co-blogs...this one in anticipation of an Abstraction with Cold Wax Medium workshop we are teaching together in May near the Arctic Circle in Sweden. Click here to read our post and here for the workshop's web page. There are still a few spaces remaining for this unique opportunity--eighteen hours of sunlight a day, breathtaking scenery, and a week of intensive painting, conversation and exploration with the two of us, among an international group of participants. Perhaps you will join us! if that's not possible, stay tuned for photos and updates of the adventure.
It's been just over ten years since I've shown in my home community of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. My work has changed a lot since 2004--here is an installation shot of the exhibit held at the LE Phillips Memorial Public Library in December of that year.
At the time, almost all of my work was made up of multiple panels, bolted together. I had been working exclusively in abstraction, using cold wax medium on panel, for about three years at this point. In retrospect, while I still appreciate this work, I see that it was created mostly with my head more so than with my heart. I did not invest much emotion or meaning in the work--it came more from a fascination with the medium I was just starting to explore, and the structural possibilities of bolting panels together . But these interesting arrangements of color and texture were an early and important step on the road to true personal voice.
A little over a week ago, my current exhibit opened in the same exhibition space. There have been many changes in a decade. My 2015 exhibit, A Gift of Days: Memories of Ireland, is thematic in a way that my earlier exhibits never were. Back then, I was far less specific in my intentions for the work. Now, everything I make in some way relates to personal experiences and memories both visual and emotional. Most of my paintings have to do with specific places in Ireland, where I have spent so much time in the past few years.
Also,I have mostly abandoned multiple panel arrangements, as my images have become stronger and expressive as individual compositions.
The photo below shows the same exhibition space, just taken a bit closer in than the 2004 photo.
The adjacent wall in the gallery at LE Phillips Memorial Public Library, below:
Here is the statement I wrote for this exhibit; you may click here to read the John O'Donohue poem referenced (which I posted beside my statement.)
writer and philosopher John O'Donohue's poem, For the Traveler, describes the awakening of mind and soul that
comes with a certain kind of focused travel in an unfamiliar place. He speaks of travel as a pilgrimage, a
journey--words that imply much more than a sight-seeing trip or holiday. His poem is about a kind of travel that opens
a channel between inner and outward experience, and one that involves
intention, intuition and being aware of each day's offerings. This kind of travel invites creative
response, and is at the heart of the experience of an artist-in-residence
residency and fellowship programs are found all over the world-- providing
selected artists with the opportunity to pursue their work for weeks or even
months at a time, away from daily concerns. An artist's residency is a gift of
time, of space, and of place--and of these, place is what most motivates me to
seek these opportunities. During each of
the seven artist residencies I have experienced, the surroundings have given
rise to new thoughts and changes in my work. This has never more so than on my
last two fellowships, which took place at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County
Mayo, Ireland in the fall of 2013 and 2014.
Both times I was able to stay for six weeks and to immerse myself in the
daily life of the small Irish village of Ballycastle, and in the stimulating
and congenial atmosphere of the Foundation where artists come together from
various parts of the world.
At the root of my
memories and sensory impressions of the West of Ireland are the dramatic
coastal cliffs, richly textured boglands,
patinas of old boats and buildings, Neolithic
ruins, and the dramatic skies that characterize the region. I was moved every day by Mayo’s beauty and
long history. As an abstract painter, the imagery I work with is filtered through
these emotional responses, in ways that I hope convey some essence of this