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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:
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.
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...
s: 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.
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.
: every glass I had (and there were quite a few) was savored. Nice grappa, too.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
: ancient/modern,..old walls butting up against shiny glass and metal of expensive, trendy shops. Commerce and sacred antiquity co-existing.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
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.
thoughts about 2016
I'm home again after an exceptionally fine week of teaching at Cullowhee Mountain Arts i
n North Carolina. I love this program, guided by the vision and superb management skills of its director, Norma Hendrix. The facility on the campus of Western Carolina University is top notch, and one of the best aspects of the program is that several classes run concurrently during the week. That means all the students and instructors have the opportunity to meet and learn what the others are up to. I taught next door to Lisa Pressman,
and enjoyed some collaborative painting and sharing of info between classes. Here, Lisa and I work together on two paintings, passing them back and forth on command from a student we designated to call time. Fast-paced and challenging! (sorry, I don't know whom to credit for this photo...cameras were clicking around the room, and this one made the rounds on facebook.)
The group of artists who came to the advanced cold wax workshop I taught were all very focused, perceptive, and open-minded in their work, including those with comparatively less experience. They were a delight to work with in every way. Lots of good conversations, laughter, and hours of painting.
And then, when it was all over, I set out for the drive home, already tired from the week of teaching. The trip was over 1000 miles through heat, road construction and highways clogged with summer vacationers. To add to the discomfort, the air conditioning in my old Subaru petered out during the trip, and the hotel I'd booked for an overnight stay on the way home was far less wonderful than its website (and price) led me to expect. I wish I'd have flown--and I will next time-- but flying can be exhausting too. I arrived home yesterday around 4pm, too wrung out to do much except watch television for the remainder of the day (very unusual behavior for me.) I know from past experience that it will take me several days to find my energy again.
In the meantime, I'll attempt to take it easy, but my to-do list will be on my mind-- I leave for my Italy workshop in just over two weeks. After that, I teach in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, then I go back to North Carolina, and will finish out the year with two workshops in Ireland. In all of 2015, I'll have made three trips to Europe, two to North Carolina, one to Ontario, one to Taos, NM and one to Tucson, AZ, plus several more local road trips to workshops and galleries in my area. Travel is enriching and exciting, and going overseas fulfills a long-time dream to see more of the world.
And yet...there are concerns that have come up repeatedly in the past few months of this very busy year. How can I find time for rest and relaxation, along with creative rejuvenation and time for my own painting? How can I keep from becoming overly tired and losing my art mojo? These are questions that many busy artists face, as various aspects of life pull us from our quiet, creative centers. Though I've resisted this issue for years, I've gradually come to understand the risk of becoming depleted, physically and artistically if I don't take more time for myself.
I've noticed the difference I feel when I do give myself more "me" time--for example, how important the silence and low stress environment was during my recent residency in northern Sweden. I love residencies for this reason--drinking in that quiet, centered time like cold water when I'm parched. I can also find this quiet, inner place when I'm at home, in my garden, on walks, and when I'm in my own studio.
Thinking about all of this, I've started looking more consciously for ways to give myself small breaks for relaxation and reflection. For example, before I left North Carolina after my workshop, I stayed on an extra night in my woodsy cabin accommodations, which I'd had little time to really enjoy due to long teaching days. I gave myself a lovely, quiet day to sit on the screen porch, write in my journal, read, take a walk. I wondered then when the last time I took a whole day off had been. Below, one of the photos I took as I walked beside a little stream that ran along the cabin property. It seems a metaphor for the flow of vital energy, which can only happen when the channel is free of excess debris.
After six years of holding up to 12 workshops annually, and with these insights on my mind, I know it's time to slow down. Not an easy decision; several times a week, I hear from new people that are eager to take class from me, or from former students hoping to return for another session. It will be a challenge not to give in and start adding on classes (please don't tempt me!) But my firm plan for 2016 is to teach only six workshops total: two with Cullowhee Mountain Arts (venues and dates TBA), two in County Mayo, Ireland in the autumn, and two at my studio (probably one in spring and one in summer.) The classes at my studio and in Ireland will be cold wax instruction for mixed levels, beginner to advanced (beginners will need to be experienced in some other type of painting.) At this time, I expect the other two workshops, the ones through Cullowhee Mountain Arts, to be aimed at advanced levels only--one for advanced painting with cold wax, and one for advanced painting in any medium, with a focus of developing personal direction in abstraction.
I'll publish full details before the end of this year, but in the meantime, if you wish to join a contact list for priority registration, you may email me
for the studio classes, or Una Forde
for the workshops in Ireland or Norma Hendrix f
or those associated with Cullowhee Mountain Arts. (Some classes will involve instructor approval and submission requirements, which have not yet been worked out, but you can still join the contact list.) If you haven't joined my mailing list, you can do so on the contact page of my website
or on my Facebook page
. By doing so, you'll receive full details of the scheduled classes for next year.
outer / inner
Although I admire and respond to a lot of pure, non-referential abstract painting, my own work has never been in that camp. I've always abstracted from
a visual source.
For the past twenty years or so, my fascination has been the intersection between the outer, visual world and the inner world of memories, feelings, ideas and responses to my experiences. Almost always the outer,visual input in my work comes from landscape and nature. (You can read earlier blog posts on this topic here
The exact mixture of outer and inner elements varies with every stage of every painting, and as time goes by, the search for the perfect balance compels me as much as it did when I was just beginning. My favorite paintings are the ones in which I sense a clear connection to my outer source material, but transform it with meaning that arises from my inner vision and intent.
|the studio at Ricklundgarden|
I've recently returned from an artist residency at Ricklundgarden
, in northern Sweden (see previous May/June posts for photos and commentary.) While I was immersed in that spectacular landscape, my paintings were fairly direct references to my surroundings, especially in terms of color and texture. Ice and snow, rocks, lichen, and birch bark all contributed to images that emerged in the Ricklundgarden studio. When I am on an artist residency, and inspired by new and unique landscape, I feel I am taking visual notes as I paint. The beauty and energy in the work I do while on residency lies in its directness and spontaneity. I try to take in and respond to as many aspects of the visual landscape as I can while I'm there. Although the more thoughtful and conceptual aspects of my work are always present to some extent, they play a secondary role during those few precious weeks of soaking up the visual world and responding to it in the studio. There is a free flow to the work that I do after spending time outside soaking up the unique beauty around me. That is enough, and very satisfying. Below are two photos, one of a small work on paper and one of the ice melt on Kult Lake that inspired it.
|Kultsjon, 6"x4" mixed media on paper|
Now that I'm back in my own studio and working on larger, more developed paintings, though, a new process begins, one of filtering and mixing my visual impressions with ideas, memories and feelings. The paintings I did at Ricklundgarden are now source material themselves--my visual notes. I have them spread out on a table and sort through them often, looking, remembering, and analyzing.
Below is a small painting I did at Ricklundgarden in response to the birch trees that grew everywhere. Especially when I first arrived and the world there was smooth and white with snow, I was drawn to the complex textures, colors and lines in the bark. I played around with these in a number of small works on paper.
Now here are two larger paintings I have done since coming home. My visual source in nature is birch bark once again, but less obviously so than in the smaller work done in Sweden. What have stayed with me are the colors, and the lines that appear on the bark that look almost like drawings. As I worked with line on these paintings, I had the sense that I was drawing maps of my memories of travel in Lappland, the meandering walks and the several road trips that my friend and fellow resident artist, Janice Mason Steeves
, and I took.
So, a shift happened that I value in my more developed, larger work--a synthesis of both my inner space as well as what I see and observe became integral to the painting. When this happens, it helps me to know the painting is finished. I'm excited to see what other ideas emerge from my time in Sweden as well as how this particular thread will play out.
|Travels in Lappland #1, 40"x40" oil and mixed media on panel|
|Travels in Lappland #2, 36"x48" oil and mixed media on panel|
|the sky at 1 a.m. this morning....|
It's my last day here at Ricklundgarden
, the artist's residency in Northern Sweden where I have been living and working for the past month. Along with my friend and colleague, Janice Mason Steeves, I will fly tomorrow to Stockholm for a few days of seeing the sights, and then to Toronto on the 10th. On the 12th I'll start my drive from her place to Wisconsin and home, sweet home.
It's cold and rainy outside, and a good day for getting ready to leave. Along with packing and cleaning, yesterday we also finished writing one of our co-blog posts--an ongoing project in which we have a conversation about a particular topic. This one is about our time at Ricklundgarden
. Click here
to read our thoughts.
It's been a very productive time--I've done almost 70 paintings, most of them small and quick, others more developed. That's a lot to take home and contemplate. Here is a photo of my studio taken a few days ago from the little balcony overhead, and the other showing the view from that balcony window.
There is much to consider about this residency, and I know my views about it will continue to evolve after I leave, and gain some distance on it. The influences may be subtle, woven in with other ideas and experiences, or they may be more direct. The mystery and magic of the intuitive process is that from all that is taken in--visually, emotionally, experientially--what persists and takes on the most meaning over time cannot be predicted.
a creative loop
Last weekend, Janice Mason Steeves and I paid a visit to the Swedish city of Umeå
on the opposite side of the country from where we are staying for a month at Ricklundgarden
(an artist residency in Saxnas.) While we both love the quietness and remote location of Ricklundgarden, a few days of exploring another location and being among flowers and greenery was very appealing. We thoroughly enjoyed the museums, shops and other delights of the city.
On our return, we stopped at Umedalens Skulpturpark
, a sculpture park on the city's outskirts, and spent an hour or so wandering among the works on display, some by well known artists such as Anish Kapoor, Louise Bourgeois and Antony Gormley. The sculptures are scattered around the extensive grounds of a complex of buildings, once a psychiatric institution, and today an office park and school. We had a map, but even so, we had to search for some of the sculptures, and a few fit into the surroundings so well--or were otherwise somewhat concealed-- that we almost passed them by. It was an entertaining sort of hide and seek to find and identify what we could. Some of the sculptures had an interactive element, including one of our favorites...
|Cristina Iglesias, Vegetation Room VII, 2000|
After leaving this immersion into a sculptural world, we both noticed that ordinary objects around us (trash bins, road markers) suddenly took on the aura of art objects. We had undergone a shift in perception that allowed us to notice the form and presence of things normally unseen. I've experienced the same phenomenon after leaving the studios or exhibits of certain artists who caused me to see differently, or more acutely, at least for a short time--a particular focus brought on by the artist's interpretation of the visual world.
I've also noticed the same thing with my own work--that after a day of being immersed in painting, I see more texture, color, contrast and detail in the world around me. The act of putting down color and manipulating paint seems to open up my own vision, and I leave the studio seeing through a painterly lens. I suspect this must be a fairly universal experience for those of us who spend hours in the studio. It is certainly helpful for generating continued ideas and direction--a creative loop in which the work and visual experience feed one another.
I am thinking about how creative loop works for me here at Ricklundgarden, where I am surrounded by a spectacular landscape that changes every day with the melting of snow and ice and the gradual appearance of spring. I'm spending time outside every day, and constantly looking out my windows when I'm inside, given the incredible views I have of mountains and lake in a world that never seems to actually get dark (there are a few hours of dusk around midnight to 3a.m.) I take a lot of photos and soak in every visual experience. But I notice that my sensitivities to the landscape are especially open when I go out in the evening, after a day of painting.
My work is not about the visual experience alone, though--it also comes from the emotions I feel in this remote, majestic place. The power in the contrast of ice, snow and rock, in the changing weather and the flowing of the water moves me. There is also a sense of mystery about what lies beneath the surface of the snow and ice. Every day that moves toward spring allows rocks and plants emerge that we did not see before. The grounds around Ricklundgarden that seemed so smooth and gently contoured with snow when we first came are now revealing their rugged and stony character, and the accessible parts of the lake shore constantly expand. As Jan and I head out for our evening walks, there is a feeling of childlike play in exploring the woods and shore. There are also bicycles for us to use, which are really fun. I feel about 10 years old when I take one down the road to the grocery or to my favorite waterfall spot down the road.
All of this experience is important to my paintings, which evolve intuitively, based on what I feel about the surroundings here as well as what I observe. As on other residencies in beautiful, remote places, being out in the landscape--walking, photographing, and just soaking it all up-- is the other half of what makes being here worthwhile. The creative loop of allowing the landscape to feed my work, and my work in turn opening me up to the landscape, is a rich experience.
A photo below of an ice formation taken after a day in the studio that involved a lot of white paint...
Below are some of my recent paintings, that come from the idea of what lies beneath the snow and is now emerging, and the visual delights of snow and ice contrasted with stone and ground cover. Both are currently untitled--top one is 10"x8", lower one is 12"x12", oil and cold wax.