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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.

Thursday, March 19, 2015
  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. 

Monday, March 02, 2015
  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. 

Gathering Light , Gallery Stratford, installation  photo courtesy Janice Mason Steeves

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. 

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.
Monday, February 09, 2015
  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. 

Monday, January 26, 2015
  home base
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.)  

Irish 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 program.

Artists' 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 remarkable landscape

Thursday, January 01, 2015
  looking back, looking ahead
2014 ended quietly for me, a glass of wine, a good book, and asleep by eleven. But the year itself was an exhilarating ride, full of milestones and expanding horizons. I look back with gratitude to all that has happened, and ahead with a sense of momentum and possibility. 

It was a year of travel, from Florida to Vancouver Island, to North Carolina and finally back to my beloved County Mayo, Ireland. In the middle of all of that were several treasured months at home during one of the most beautiful Wisconsin summers I can recall. The autumn colors before I left for Ireland were spectacular. 

our woods, October 2014

It was my fourth time in Ireland, and my second stay at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Mayo. On each visit I have felt a deeper connection and a relaxation into the flow of my work and the simple life in the village. This time, a highlight was spending time with my younger brother Hugh, who came over for two weeks--the first time in almost forty years that we've had the luxury of a prolonged one on one visit. I also taught two workshops with wonderful students (there is something about Ballinglen that bonds those who come for class in a special way.) I also enjoyed the company of other artist/fellows in the congenial atmosphere surrounding the Foundation, and outings to the coast and the boglands.

My brother Hugh at Benwee Head, in County Mayo, Ireland. 

Other great teaching experiences of 2014 included working with very focused and excited groups of cold wax students in Delray Beach, Florida, British Columbia, Mineral Point, WI, Cullowhee, NC and in my home studio.  I also taught a new type of workshop at the beautiful Lake Logan Retreat Center in NC. It was not specific to cold wax, but dealt with broader issues of abstraction in various media-- including monoprinting and acrylic painting--with a focus on small works on paper. 

students discussing their work at Lake Logan NC workshop

2014 was also a year of success for my own work with my highest level of sales and income to date--a total of 53 sales, from small works on paper to large commissioned paintings (including a series of five large paintings for the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX.) I was excited to participate via Gormleys Fine Art of Dublin (where I had a solo exhibit in September) in Affordable Art Fairs in London and Brussels--the first time I have exhibited and sold internationally outside of Ireland. 

Ancient of Days, 36"x48" --sold in London by Gormleys fine Art of Dublin

Another highlight of 2014 was the sale of five large paintings via Telluride Gallery of Fine Art to the Lumiere Hotel in Telluride, CO, and several works that sold as a result of a spring group show I was part of at The PS Gallery in Columbia, MO. Thomas Deans Gallery, Woodwalk Gallery, Brewery Pottery Gallery and Elaine Erickson Gallery  all made sales too, and friends, colleagues and people in my workshops bought a number of pieces from me directly. This amazing year has brought hope that the economy has turned for the better and that other artists too are enjoying a return of sales. 

The year ended with a newly cleaned and organized studio, and the hiring of a studio assistant--my first ever. And there was the surprise and honor of being chosen from among 550 entries for Huffington Post art blogger John Seed's picks of Memorable Paintings of 2014.  

Red Bog, 48"x36"--published on the Huffington Post

My newly organized studio!

What's ahead for 2015? Lots more travel for teaching, including an expansion of the ideas launched with the Lake Logan workshop of '14--this time the setting will be in Taos, NM in April, at the famous Mabel Dodge Luhan house/conference center. Called the Poetics of Place, the workshop will include interaction with poet Cecilia Woloch, who also taught at Lake Logan, and her students. 

I'll be exploring another new workshop format in May with my friend and colleague Janice Mason Steeves, as we co-teach an abstraction/cold wax class at Ricklungarden, an artists' residencey in northern Sweden. (Jan and I will stay on and paint for three weeks after the class ends.) I'll be back at Lake Logan in September and at Ballinglen (Ireland) in October and November. I'll also be teaching several other classes around the country and in my studio in Wisconsin. I plan to send out a newsletter soon with complete details on all my workshops in 2015; please join my mailing list here  (scroll down the page ) if you'd like to receive that information. 

Currently I am preparing for five exhibits in January (and feeling grateful for my new assistant!) I am quite excited to be chosen by Gormleys fine Art for their booth at The London Fair  that opens January 21. The London Fair is considered the premier fair for modern and contemporary art in the UK.  

Fissures #1, 42"x40" oil and mixed media on panel. --to be exhibited at The London Fair

I'm also having a solo show at the public library in Eau Claire, WI that opens January 15--it the closest exhibition space to my home and quite a nice public space. I look forward to sharing my work with people I know in the area--I haven't shown locally for ten years and it seems time. The exhibit will focus on paintings created as a result of my last two residencies at Ballinglen. 

The other exhibits I'm participating in this month are group shows: Colors of Fire at Telluride Gallery in CO; Breaking Through Surface Tension at Pima Community College in Tucson, AZ, and Geologic Time at Conrad Wilde Gallery, also in Tucson. I'll be flying to Tucson for the opening at the college on Feb. 12th, where I will also be speaking and later teaching a workshop (which has been filled.) 

SO...that's a lot. If 2015 is anything like 2014, I'll have times when I feel overwhelmed...when it seems I cannot possibly meet my commitments and deadlines.  I am familiar with a feeling of stress when things pile up--because of course nothing comes along in neat linear order. There are aspects of every workshop, exhibit and project that must be planned far in advance, often in the midst of some other demanding situation, But over time I feel I'm getting better at coping with this level of activity and demand--more able to relax and believe that it will be all be done. 

My challenge, and my goal for the coming year is to cultivate trust that my plans will unfold as they are meant to, and will evolve with sense of ease, enjoyment and accomplishment. And to all of my artist friends--may the New Year bring you ever closer to your own goals and desires, and may you find pleasure and excitement in all the surprising turns of your creative journey.

Thursday, December 18, 2014
  intention and intuition
Sralagagh #3. 16"x20" oil and mixed media on panel

The questions and mysteries that an artist encounters on a journey into abstraction are plentiful and deep, and at the core of this questioning is the search for personal meaning--for finding an individual path and for working holistically with emotion, memory, thought, and visual impressions. Ideally, with practice, a vocabulary of meaning and intentional form begins to grow, alongside techniques and aspects of style that resonate with the inner self.

When an abstract painter's approach relies upon intuition, spontaneity and involvement in process, thought and intention are often seen as inhibiting factors to be overcome. In this view, spontaneity and intention oppose rather than being complementary to one another. The common advice is to avoid thinking, evaluating, judging or pre-conceiving while painting in this way.

But without intentions--without ideas and thoughts underlying the work--abstract painting can become very inconsistent, pulled here and there by happy accidents and the many suggestions that the paint itself offers up.  If the artist doesn't refer to experience, emotion, or memory (or, in more formal work to some conceptual idea that intrigues) a lack of personal connection to the work can undermine its power and potential for growth. This problem extends to the ability of the work to impact those who view it, because without a source of ideas or expression, the work lacks a solid base from which to communicate.

On the other hand, without spontaneity, openness and experimentation, an artist risks becoming rigid, hemmed in by preconceived boundaries. The ideas behind the work need to be expansive enough to allow for roaming about, exploring, testing, and breaking new ground.

Often when I'm teaching workshops, I am challenged to articulate the balance that exists between having basic parameters and intentions for the work,  while at the same time remaining open to changes and new directions as things progress. It can be tricky tor any artist to recognize when thinking has slipped into over-thinking--when strong ideas or judgments have led to limitations that are stifling growth. Likewise, freely applying paint can be so fascinating that it's hard to step back and see objectively what the painting lacks in terms of presence, meaning, or resolution.

For me, the key to being in the zone where intention and intuition are balanced--with neither blocking the other-- is to tune in to my gut feelings as I work. When I'm having negative feelings about a painting--when I'm bored, frustrated, impatient, or it seems I am getting nowhere--it's a sign that I have lost this important alignment.  It means that I am either over-thinking, or else I'm too caught up in  "pushing paint around" ( a phrase I attribute to my friend James Edward Scherbarth.) Or sometimes it is a strange combination of both, when I have too strong a pre-conceived idea and think I will get there by a lot of random paint -pushing.

An important step in developing my own work has been to realize that intention and intuition come from the same inner source, are equally important, and that although they manifest in different ways they are not basically at odds with one another. For me, the balance between them comes in recognizing and developing certain aspects of the painting as it evolves--those that resonate with my ideas, that feel right and true to me, that represent what I wish to express and communicate. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

I'm back from six weeks in Ireland, to the wintry, frozen landscape that surrounds my home. Though the contrast between this snowy world and that of north Mayo--with its rugged green pastures, rich tapestry of bog plants and ever-changing sea colors--is startling, the Wisconsin countryside has its own wild beauty right now.  It is stark, with only subtle color in the fields and woods, and the cold and snow are constant reminders of nature's power--all aspects of nature with which I resonate as a painter.

In this way, winter may be the perfect season for my transition back to my home studio, because although visually very different from Ireland, there is some essence of the landscape around me now that provides continuity. I am intrigued by this quote from the American minimalist painter Agnes Martin:
The artist lives by perception. So that what we make is what we feel. The making of something is not just construction. It’s all about feeling… everything, everything is about feeling…. feeling and recognition!
What an interesting remark from someone whose work is generally perceived as austere and controlled! She did indeed work from joy and an emotional response to the visual world, filtered through her perceptions. 

During my time in Ireland, I taught two workshops in cold wax medium, during which I encouraged everyone to get out, soak up the textures, colors and forms of the surroundings and bring something of the personal response to that experience back into the studio.This interaction with the landscape is an important aspect of my own work, but asking it of the students led me to examine the process more closely. 

For me, the landscape and all that contributes to its unique character have long been powerful sources for painting ideas.  While I am drawn to the visual appearance of the landscape, it's the symbolic or poetic aspects of nature that provide personal meaning. I see the ways in which our emotional, spiritual, intellectual and physical selves reflect the processes in nature of erosion, stratification, growth and collapse. I see its rich textures and colors as metaphor for the complexities of human life and its contrasts as evocative of our own struggles and challenges. 

So, what I am after in my work is a distillation or essence of the experience of being in nature as a whole. I may feel at one with nature as a living creature, but I am also set apart by the inner complexities that come with being human...feelings, memories, ideas and thoughts. While observation of the visual reality is the starting point, the work is both an inner response and an outward observation. When I am in landscapes that are rugged, textural, atmospheric and dramatic, I feel a wonderful merging of inner and outer realities...this is what feeds my work. 

However, I sometimes question whether this approach makes the work overly ego-centered, too much about myself or humans in general and not enough about what simply IS, without emotional interpretation. I do see such incredible perfection in all visual aspects of nature- the spread of lichen on a rock, the tangle of bare branches against the sky, the shifting clouds. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother to paint. Nothing can approach the beauty of what has already been created in the natural world.

My answer to the dilemma is to take photographs of those perfect aspects. To me, photography comes closest to being an objective eye on what IS, apart from human interpretation (though of course, there is always interpretation, even in the choosing and cropping of images.) So, I take many photos when I am out in nature, for their own sake.   Not to work from in the studio, or even to refer to as a regular practice. 

But they do serve another purpose, because in the moment of choosing the image, focusing on some aspect of nature and clicking, I have also made an inner connection that becomes part of the mix that finds its way onto my panels. There's no escaping--nor desire to escape --the fact that I'm moved to my core by what I see and experience in nature. For me it's about seeking an essence that resonates with my inner self, while responding to and respecting the outward appearances of landscape.   

(Fissures #2, 42"x36" oil and mixed media on panel, painted while on residency at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County Mayo, Ireland.)



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