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   Welcome to my blog! I'll be posting thoughts about art, photos, happenings, and other things that strike me--and hopefully my readers--as interesting. And please visit my website by clicking the link to the right--thanks!

   Also please check out my second blog, The Painting Archives to see older (pre-2004) paintings for sale.

Monday, January 25, 2016
  land of enchantment
The Land of Enchantment...so they call New Mexico. I am indeed enchanted, a week into our stay in a lovely handmade cabin near Llano, just off the High Road to Taos. My husband Don and I have been out and about exploring the area from Chimayo to Taos, while other days we have spent at the cabin; reading, writing, walking and painting (me) and researching the area in consideration of a purchasing a house here (mostly Don.) We're well aware of all the cautions surrounding NM real estate purchases, but are proceeding nonetheless with optimism and the intention of finding a place for a few month's retreat each winter.  To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, we are dwelling in possibility and hoping to make this dream a reality. 

I've been to this area at least a dozen times over the years, and this landscape moves me deeply. In some ways, it's similar to places in other parts of the world that I have loved--Sweden (with its snowy mountains), Spain (with its arid mountains) and Ireland (with its dramatic cloud formations and big skies.) But as I work in the small studio in the cabin, I see that New Mexico has its own, unique flavor that is coming through in the work. This is a scrubby, gritty, rough and very textural place with its rocky landscapes, old adobe walls and patchy foliage. And it's also a place of great subtlety as the light shifts throughout the day, and the colors of winter weeds glow against the snow. 

Below is one of the paintings I've finished in the small cabin studio, Travel Lines #3, 36"x30," oil and mixed media on panel. 

Here is a smaller painting, reflecting memories of hiking in a canyon in the beautiful Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge near Socorro, where we went on our first weekend in New Mexico. (Canyon, 12"x18" oil and mixed media on panel.)

As always when I work, the time that I've spent in the landscape--walking, driving through, photographing, observing, enjoying-- feeds my imagery. This happens in an indirect, intuitive way. There is mystery to the way that the process of building up layers of oil, cold wax, powdered pigments and chalks releases the colors, textures and moods of my experiences.  Once I sense a connection, the information goes both ways as I begin to direct the painting toward a more intentional resolution. 

I'm very grateful to have this time, which I look at as a sort of unofficial artist residency--one that I'm able to share with Don. Quiet days and no big agenda. Soaking up the special character of the New Mexico mountain landscape, and knowing I'll be back. 
Monday, December 28, 2015
  at the end of the year

We bless this year for all we have learned,
For all we loved and lost.
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination. 
--John O'Donohue, from "At the End of the Year."

For me, 2015 was a year of new experiences, new and deepening friendships, and exciting expansions of my art career. It was also the year my mother died, on January 20, and thus it has been a year of mourning and adjusting to her absence. It was the year I traveled to three foreign countries--Sweden, Italy and Ireland--for teaching and painting, and those exhilarating experiences and rich memories have fed my work. It was the year I began a new project, co-authoring (with Jerry McLaughlin) the book Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts and Conversations, to be published in August of 2016. It was the year I put 8,000 cross-country miles on my car (mostly alone behind the wheel) and taught twelve workshops, and finally recognized the wisdom of slowing my pace for the future. 

It was not a quiet year for me at all, yet O'Donohue's poem resonates with me. No matter how busy, exciting, or stressful our outer lives may be, our inner processing--the integrating of experience, reaction, and intention that happens in a year of our life-- is indeed a quiet process. To me, our "invisible destination" is that which we reach toward spiritually, emotionally, mentally. As artists, it is what pulls us along--a tenuous vision that is at the same time ahead and just out of reach, and yet has always been with us. The urge we feel to reach it is our source of creative energy, as old as our years and as immediate as today's studio session. 

What I take from O'Donohue's words is the idea that our creative energy does arise from experience, played out in the days that unfold over a year. As 2015 ends, it seems a good time to ask ourselves what we have learned, what we have loved, what we have lost, and in what ways these are present, consciously or unconsciously in our work. Because these connections to our own experience are what what make our work authentic, vibrant, personal, and capable of growth. 

(The painting above, Trails (40"x60"), oil and mixed media on panel, is part of a new series in which lines inspired by maps and memories represent travels, wanderings and trails I've taken. )

Friday, November 13, 2015
  photos and paintings
Though faded a bit from when I first arrived in early October, the County Mayo landscape I left last week was still colorful in late autumn--the farm fields in astonishing shades of lush green and certain flowers in gardens and hedgerows in bloom. The bog glowed with golden grasses, and on closer view, fairy worlds of lichen and moss displayed a rich range of color.

Other aspects of the landscape and seacoast there were also powerful--rock formations, cloud formations, eroded walls, trees sculpted by strong coastal winds, the bare hills of the boglands.

I take lots of photos when I'm in Ireland and in other places where I travel--from closeup views of rocks and plants to more distant views of fields and sky. Even though my photos remain somewhat private (I never exhibit them except online, on blog posts, facebook and instagram) I'm starting to consider them a little more seriously. Like anything that is practiced over time, they seem to be becoming stronger and more integrated with my studio work.

It's not a straightforward connection--I don't use my photos as direct references for paintings, for example; I almost never look at them when painting. But what I'm starting to realize--and to feel good about--is a shared vision between the photos and my paintings that is made stronger by my involvement in both. They are separate channels, but there are influences and information flow between them.

Photography is for me a way to honor the visual world as it is, while allowing for the influence of my painter's eye from behind the lens.  I think of my photos as celebrations of the complexity, beauty and organization in nature. I take them for their own sake, and love the process of getting still, finding my subject, and capturing the moment. I don't think about anything then but the photo itself. But it sometimes happens that, in this moment of close attention to what's in front of me, visual ideas about color and composition are implanted. These can emerge later, intuitively, in paint. As well, the feelings, impressions, sensations of the photographed moment may also have surprising influence. Certain photos that I have taken create this strong emotional resonance for me, and have influenced many paintings, even though the viewer might not see obvious connection in terms of imagery. Often, it's not any one photo, but many that I take of a certain subject, or around a certain visual idea, that feeds my painting in these ways.

Although we tend to think of photos as influencing paintings, it's actually a complex back and forth, with each informing the other. For example, due to my painting experience, I find that I'm more intentional and present when photographing than I once was. There's an integration of attitude and approach that we often benefit from when working in more than one medium.  And I feel that my best photos are influenced by my paintings, in the sense that I'm intuitively drawn to subjects that relate to what I am working with in the studio--particular kinds of lines, color relationships, compositions. Visual ideas that are currently in play, or sensed as future possibilities. Since these ideas themselves originated in the landscape that I'm photographing--well, who can sort it out? I'm just happy, in thinking of the dozens of photo files I've come home with, to recognize a dynamic relationship between them and my paintings.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015
  back in ballycastle
Last year, one of the students on my workshops here at Ballinglen Arts Foundation said to me, "Clearly, Ireland is your happy place." She was right; during my residency time here (between the two workshops I teach) I feel enveloped in the simple joys of owning my days, painting and walking, being who I am. It is an idyllic time, free of responsibilities and to-do lists, in what I think must be one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. I feel tremendous gratitude for all that brings me back here year after year--the people at Ballinglen, my students, and of course the support and understanding of my family.

There is a subtle shift in my attitude that I notice after I have been here a week or so. A relaxation, a letting go of the urge to push and make things happen. Being still, just looking at things, noticing things. Enjoying the solitude as well as the company of the lovely people who come and go here.

This is my third autumn at Ballinglen, and each time I feel drawn to different aspects of the landscape. In 2013, it was the drama of the wild seacoast. Last year, while out walking with my brother who is a wetlands ecologist, it was the rich colors and textures of the tapestry of bog plants. This time I find myself looking closely at the hedgerows that line every small road and create the grid of farm fields in the landscape, densely woven walls of plant life that form around stone and wire farm fences, like vertical gardens. Thick with thorns and stinging nettles, they are formidable barriers, but beautiful in the richness of their colors and textures, Blackberry vines with ripe berries appearing, gorse with its yellow flowers, wild roses hung with bulbous red hips, fuchsia in bloom, ivy, morning glories and numerous ferns and grasses. Many plants have dried and gone to seed, while others are still vibrant with leaves and flowers.

The hedgerows form craggy shapes against the sky, their various plant forms intertwined and densely, complexly matted. Though their colors are stunning at this time of year, I see the hedges in my mind as line and shape, the variety of plant life compressed into rough outlines. For the past few days I've been walking the back roads observing and photographing them. I've noticed that along certain lanes they have been hacked back with some merciless hedge-cutting machine, but mostly they grow freely, wildly. I wonder in what ways they will influence the work I do here, or when I'm back home.

While my particular focus seems to shift from year to year, what has moved me in the past continues to do so. I'm still delighted by the sea and the bog. It feels to me that my experience in this place builds upon itself and grows richer each time, and that every year my awareness becomes a little bit more subtle and fine-tuned.

A couple of small paintings on paper from my first days in the studio:

More to follow!

Sunday, September 20, 2015
  visual vocabulary
Soon I'll be leaving again for my last journey of the year, returning for the 3rd time in as many years to beautiful County Mayo, Ireland, for time at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ballycastle.  For the next week and a half, I'm at home, enjoying early fall in Wisconsin, and thinking over the past few months of travel and teaching. Time in Sweden, Italy, and travel here in the US...a total of six workshops and fifty-five students since May...it's a lot. My plan to slow down next year makes more and more sense. Yet I treasure all of this experience.

I wonder, going forward, if each place I've been will remain distinct and compelling in its own way, This is how it is now, with the summer's journeys fresh in my mind. I'm influenced by the sublime starkness of Sweden in certain paintings, and the warm colors and textures of Italy in others. Below, a recent painting done in response to the colors and textures of old walls in Verona:

Verona, 18"x45"

Now I have a new place in mind with big impact, though I was only there for an hour or so. The photo below was taken when I was in North Carolina a few days ago, on a path that goes behind a waterfall. (Abstractions of rushing water, as yet unexplored, have been on my mind since last year in the bogs of Mayo.)

Dry Falls, near Highlands, NC.

In my recent workshops, a big theme has been developing personal visual vocabulary that arises from experience, thought, and emotion. I suggest that artists contemplate specific qualities they desire in their work, and what they believe to be their strengths. During class we focus on the concept of alignment of form and content, which helps students see how best to express what they intend.

Exploring form (including materials, techniques, and the way the various elements of art are handled) may lead to discoveries about content (what thoughts and emotions the painting conveys.) Or, just as validly, the reverse can happen, with an idea or intention leading the way into finding the best form for its expression. For many artists, including myself, balancing form and content is a complex, back and forth conversation, with intention and process influencing one another as a body of work evolves. Eventually, particular ways of handling line, color, value, composition and so on emerge as feeling "right" and true to the individual artist. These become aspects of visual vocabulary, to be explored, perfected and developed over time. The ideas of "what do I want to say" and "how do I say it" are often intriguingly intertwined, and the sources of ideas are limitless..

For me, travel is a major catalyst for my own evolving vocabulary, just as artists over the centuries have experienced breakthroughs as the result of spending time in a new environment. When travel is very fresh in recent memory, I notice that content leads the way in my work; I look for ways of expressing what I've experienced. When I paint during travel, and in the immediate aftermath, there is a direct (though very intuitve) connection to what I've seen and felt.  As time goes by, this content starts to become more generalized and my focus shifts to aspects of form such as texture, color and shape. In other words I acquire, through travel, new ideas about form that eventually become part of my visual vocabulary. This vocabulary is flexible enough that it can play a role in work that follows.

Below are some examples of an evolving interest in shape, starting with a small work on paper done in Ireland in 2013, and inspired by the coastal rock formations near Ballycastle. The next one down is a large painting from 2014 in response to the shaggy earth shapes of the Mayo boglands, and the last is the most recent painting, influenced by small islands I noticed in Sweden. All are done using cold wax medium with oils, which I find most expressive for texture and rich color. But before the first painting in this sequence, shape had played only a minor role in my work. Now it's become a bit of visual vocabulary that I use in changing ways. In the intriguing loop of the interaction of form and content, I believe I'm also paying more attention to shape in the landscape along with learning to use it as a visual element.

Carrowteige #2, 10"x8" 

Ceide #1, 36"48"

Sad Island, 18"x14"

I wonder if there will be some synthesis that happens of my travels this year once I can work fulltime in the studio again, and what new aspects of form and content will show up. I'm about to add one last injection of experience, as I leave for Ireland on the 29th. This time, I plan to visit Cork as well as the Giant's causeway in Northern Ireland--places I have not yet seen. As well, I will re-experience the majestic coastline near Ballycastle in Mayo, and the lovely autumn colors of the bogs.As I near the end of my travels for the year, I feel incredibly blessed with what has come my way, and I look forward to digging deeper into my responses in paint.

Monday, August 24, 2015
  impressions of italy
I'm home now after a very memorable, first-time visit to Italy, overwhelmed with new experiences. Most of my stay was in the Lake Como area in the northern part of the country, where I taught two workshops at a very charming, renovated 17th century farmhouse (see my previous post.) Then came a few days of visiting Verona, Venice, Padua and a bit of countryside with my Italian friends, Roberto and Paola.  (Roberto lived with us 45 years ago as a foreign exchange student, when we were in high school; we have kept in touch ever since.) Here we are in Verona:

My return trip on Thursday took 26 hours from the time I woke up in a small village near Padua until I reached my own bed at home. During my travel, I dozed when I could--in the car, the plane, and the shuttle van-- exhausted from eight days of teaching and all the sights and interactions of the short vacation with my friends.  My dreams as I napped held the atmosphere, the light, the colors, the sweet details, and the stillness of Renaissance paintings-- a gift that kept me cocooned for a just little while longer in a particularly beautiful essence of my experience.

Now, several days into readjustment to normal life, my thoughts about Italy are difficult to summarize-- almost as elusive as those dreams.  My mind brings up a complex mix of memories and emotions, of ancient surfaces, the faces of dozens of people, the intense workshop energy, the feel of cobblestone streets, the constant soundtrack of Italian and the occasional note of church bells, the sights of elaborate old buildings and richly colored paintings, the tastes of food as beautiful to look at as to eat. A wild ride to Como on a hot night in a 1974 VW bug convertible.

Given this deluge of memories, instead of a normal blog post, I'm going to just note some of my impressions. They are  in no particular order and without much regard for grammar. Time will tell what aspects of my experience will continue to speak to me and come through in my work...

The workshops: my first days in Italy--studio with three walls, open to the air, everyone painting with focus and intensity as the wax turned soft in the heat, and the mosquitoes buzzed. There were breakthroughs, especially noticeable in the small works on paper we did.  Frequent need for translation in my communication with students from Italy and Switzerland. Communal meals on the porch, quiet at breakfast, raucous by dinner time. Fireworks from the village festival and rain dancing on the last nights of the two sessions.

Food:  heaven for vegetarians like me...nice, light eggplant parmigiana, crispy bread, a lovely cheese they make at the Cascina from yogurt, my friend Paola's minestrone, thin crust pizza, lots of home made pasta, caprese salad (fresh tomatoes, mozerrela and basil), numerous flavors of gelato. Lunch and dinner rarely less than two courses; until that realization set in, I ate too much on the first round, unaware of what was yet to come. Did not take food photos, wish I had.

Wine: every glass I had (and there were quite a few) was savored. Nice grappa, too.

Heat: air conditioning pretty much non-existent except in cars and some shops. Early on the temps climbed to over 100 degrees--thick old walls of the Cascina kept the bedrooms comfortable. Windows without screens, opened at night, closed up and shuttered during the day. Everyone sweaty during class, taking cool showers before dinner. Loose clothes and lots of chilled water. Heat wave shattered by massive thunderstorm halfway through the time at the Cascina.

Italian: the sound of two, three or six people going at once, with passion, a confusing block of sound. Gradually picking up some words and phrases. Managing some simple conversation with my non-English speaking friend by the end of my stay. Brava! (pats self on back.)

Shopping for art supplies:  concern about the safety of open bins of powdered pigments in tiny, stuffy back rooms appear to be culturally based.  I bought lots.

How to relax: nap in the afternoon, linger over supper until bedtime, sit the terrace with wine, hang out with lazy cats. Stop for a coffee or gelato or limoncello every time you go out.  Wait for your purchases to be wrapped in paper, with slow, thoughtful precision.

Medieval frescoes: close-up, intimate views in church if St. Zeno, Verona... crumbling, overlaid images, delicate colors. Exterior walls on upper floors covered with painted fragments all over Verona. Most remarkable: those by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. Limited time inside, no photos=extremely focused observation. Being very present. Faces as real in their emotional expression as any in our lives. Below, one of the S. Zeno frescoes.

Urban contrasts: ancient/modern,..old walls butting up against shiny glass and metal of expensive, trendy shops. Commerce and sacred antiquity co-existing.

Venice:  narrow, dark calles (alleyways), vast sunlit plazas, water lapping at the bases of ancient walls, intricate marble work, ornate facades, a story behind every building and statue. Thinking of Turner's paintings. Signs for Biennale (closed the day we were there.) Shops selling masks and costumes for Carnival, gondoliers punting self-conscious looking tourists around. Peggy Guggenheim Collection and exhibit of Charles Pollock (Jackson's brother--who knew??) Crowded water buses, crowded streets, crowded cafes. Then suddenly a quiet corner, a dark tunnel, a sweet, nearly empty little plaza.

Colors: everywhere I went, a paradise of subdued earthy colors, blues, greens, roses and ochres. Unexpected pink and orange painted buildings. Weathered layers revealing shades of similar hues. A particular bluish green on the shutters of a building in Venice, against a mellow white wall.

Scents: lavender, basil, garlic, incense, bug spray, boxwood, rain, peaches.

Things that moved me to tears: My beautiful solitary lunch the afternoon I arrived at the Cascina. Sweet words of praise for my teaching on our last night, and the departure of workshop friends. The view of the Grand Canal from the water bus in Venice (thinking of my mother's affection for Italy and her "Italian son," Roberto.) Stepping inside the Scrovegni Chapel. Hugging Roberto and Paola goodbye at the airport.

Saturday, August 08, 2015
  in northern italy
An olive tree outside my window, and the morning sun hitting red tiled rooftops on the opposite hillside. The scents of lavender and basil.  Intricate brick work in a 17th century ceiling. A grey cat sprawled beneath an ancient wood ladder. Espresso, homemade bread, local cheese, and fresh juice made from watermelon, peach and lemon. Trees laden with pears, apples, figs, and elderberries. Church bells ringing in the village below.

It's morning at Cascina Rodiani, the exquisite old inn just outside Como, in the Lombardia region of northern Italy, where I'm staying for 10 days and teaching two cold wax workshops. There are ten artists here for the class, from Italy, Switzerland, the UK, and the US. The group arriving next week is even more diverse, from seven countries including Australia, Sweden, Ireland, and Spain. We're working in a rustic, open-air atelier, where we are holding up well despite of the hot days. 

This is my first time in Italy; I arrived here by bus on Wednesday straight from the airport in Milan. Aside from what I could see from the bus passing through the countryside, and the cities of Como and Chiasso, Switzerland (we are right on the border here) I saw very little until I arrived at the hotel. Although I have plans to visit with friends near Venice at the end of my stay, for now, the lovely grounds of this green hotel--its gardens, workshop, porches, ancient rooms and pathways, are my entire view of Italy.

As I've photographed the surroundings here, I'm reminded again that the essence of a place can be found in its details. Filtered through my personal perceptions, emotions, and experiences, the soul and spirit of particular places is what has guided my abstract painting ideas for years.

I am completely charmed by what I know of Italy so far through the textures and colors, the quality of light, and the poignant aspects of ancient objects I am seeing here at Cascina Rodiani.



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       Rebecca Crowell