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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, 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.)

Thursday, November 06, 2014
  ballycastle, mid-way
I'm three weeks into my time at Ballinglen Arts Foundation, and the time has unfolded in ways that encompass all of my favorite aspects of North Mayo. I've enjoyed walks on the bog and along the wild seacoast cliffs, time in my studio, and good craic--seeing friends from last year and making some new ones. My younger brother Hugh is here for a week and a half which has been a lot of fun. He has a car, which has meant some good explorations in the afternoons after I've had my painting time. Tomorrow we leave to spend the weekend in the Burren, a geologically fascinating part of County Clare that I have only had a tantalizing glimpse of driving through a few years ago.

The introductory Oil&Wax workshop last week went very well--it included trips out into the land/seascape to gather ideas for abstraction, lots of painting, and good times enjoying the wonderful camaraderie of the international group of artists who came. 

If there's any problem here in Irish paradise it is that there is so much I want to be doing that the days all end too soon. I can already see that I won't come away with the number of paintings that I did last year. Teaching two workshops (there is another coming up that begins the 17th) and going exploring most afternoons has cut into my painting time. But I remind myself that sometimes the most important things done on a residency are not the actual paintings but the acquiring of memories and connections to the landscape. I find myself paying attention to different aspects of the surroundings here than I did last year--looking more closely than before at the tapestry of bog plants, the configuration of rocks in the sea, and the way that the earthy colors glow in the damp, dark weather.  

Another reason i will have fewer paintings to take home is that I have spent most of my time on two fairly large panels that i will send over to Gormley's Fine Art (my gallery in Dublin) at the end of my time here. They will be featured at Gormley's booth at the Art Fair in London in January. I am pleased with that project and will post the results when the paintings are done (getting close!)

It all goes back to my earlier post from Ballinglen--the idea of taking things easy, letting them unfold. Although there have been relatively few times of true quiet and solitude, there have been many other kinds of experiences to savor.  
Sunday, October 19, 2014
  back in ballycastle

As I write this, it is my first night back in Ballycastle, County Mayo, where I came last year for the first time for a fellowship at Ballinglen Arts Foundation.  I have the same cottage as last year, and have spent the evening settling in, making some food, having a glass of wine by the peat fire (that I’ve remembered how to coax into life!)  A sweet, sad flute melody is playing in the background--there is no internet in the cottage, or phone, or TV. Only the radio, a program tonight of traditional Irish instrumental music.

In unpacking and making the space mine again for the next five weeks, I was amused to recognize a fossil rock on the bathroom windowsill as one I put there last year (in spite of the plea in the orientation packet not to leave fossils and rocks in the cottage, lots of the artists seem to do it!) In the cupboard, I discovered a mostly empty packet of popcorn that I bought last year at a fruit and veg stand—pleased then to find a snack I love at home but which is not part of typical Irish fare.  It seems a few other artists have enjoyed its contents in the interval since I left it there in November, 2013. These small, quirky signs of my former presence make me smile.

And so I am back in a place that is a kind of home for me.  Tomorrow I’ll set up my studio, take a walk on the beach if it isn’t pouring.  Or, in between the times when it will be pouring, which is to be expected.

For months I’ve thought about being back here, sometimes as a brief flash, other times with outright yearning.  I’ve been conjuring up memories and sensory impressions all year in my paintings and works on paper—of walking on the bog and along the coast, the rough textures of rock and lichen, the traces of ancient people on the landscape, the wild surf.  As well, I have revisited memories of life here, the peace of days focused on my work, the friendliness of the people in the village, the simplicity of having no outside demands, the walks home in the dark evening, stopping at the little grocery for dinner food, the occasional night at the pub with others from Ballinglen.

On this, my first night of this year’s stay, I’m feeling impatient to dive into these experiences again and eager for whatever will be new.  But I’m also remembering that this is a place that unfolds in subtle ways, and fully coming back will take a little time.  My deep feelings for this part of Mayo evolved over the whole six weeks I spent here in 2013--as one experience led to another, my work found direction,  insights re-enforced one another, and the people I met became better known to me.  Even the landscape and seascape, as dramatic as they are, did not fully impact me all at once—instead, each time I went out walking I took in more.

Tonight as I listen to the Irish flute, sip my wine and watch the fire, I'm thinking I want to take things slow and easy.  It’s challenging to shift out of the intense pace of life at home, where I work constantly and have many responsibilities of home and family. Here, I can simply sit and do nothing but experience the moment...rediscover the quiet inside in which my experiences here will fully resonate.
Thursday, October 09, 2014
  off to ireland

In a few days, I return to Ireland for my fourth stay in as many years. This year, as I did in 2013, I will be an artist in residence at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County Mayo. Each time I return, it feels more and more like a place in which my soul is at home.

This is a quick post, as I have so much to do before I leave. But I'd like to share this blessing by the Irish writer and philosopher John O'Donohue, called For the Traveler. In it, O'Donohue speaks about the kind of travel that opens a channel between inner as outward experience, that involves intention, intuition and attention, and it brings to mind so many of my experiences in Ireland so far.

I'll be posting more soon from the other side of the big pond!

For the Traveler
Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.
May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014
  lake logan workshop
I've just gotten home from a week of a workshop for eleven advanced artists at Lake Logan Retreat Center near Canton, North Carolina, run by Cullowhee Mountain Arts. It was different in many ways from others I have taught--in fact I find I hesitate to even say I taught--it was more that I facilitated.  The artists who came have all been painting for a number of years and have an excellent understanding of content and formal elements in their work. As a result, much of our week was spent in deep conversation about ideas, authenticity, intentions and goals. Each artist was asked ahead of time to prepare a short presentation about some of their source ideas and these were astonishing in their depth and honesty.

Of course, it was not all talk. Our large, airy studio was open for use 24/7, and there was plenty of painting going on. Unlike most of my workshops, in this class there was no special emphasis on cold wax medium--many did use it, but others included watercolor, acrylic, and (because there was access to two types of presses) monotype.

At the beginning of class I introduced the idea of small works as a way to explore ideas in a more free-flowing manner than is typical with more developed panels, and I suggested that each person do at least ten small works on paper in a variety of media over the week. The results were gems of exploration and discovery. At the end of class, we each contributed a painting for an exchange organized as a random draw.

Another unique aspect of this workshop was its setting, a beautiful lakeside retreat center in the Great Smokey Mountains. Three times a day, we gathered for excellent meals in the dining hall, and the week also included several yoga sessions, meditation, canoeing, and a nature walk.  One night there was a bonfire, and Cullowhee Mountain Arts Director and all-around dear person Norma Hendrix and her husband Eric enchanted us with guitar and flute.

Another workshop was being held at the same time as ours, led by Los Angeles poet (and world traveler) Cecilia Woloch.  With the emphasis on verbal and written exploration in my own class, this combination of disciplines seemed especially fitting. Artists and writers mingled and talked intently at meals and activities, and I think we all recognized the similarity of the creative process in both disciplines as the week unfolded. (Inspired by this interaction, Celcilia and I plan some collaborative aspects for upcoming Culllowhee Mountain Arts workshops that we will teach in April, at the famous Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, NM.)

As an instructor, I valued many aspects of the lake Logan experience. I loved the way that the artists who came took ownership of the class, pitching in with ideas, suggestions and even organizing activities beyond what I had planned. One evening before dinner, I had gone to my cabin to change out of my studio clothes, and returned to find almost the whole class sitting around one member who was sharing a way of appreciating/critiquing works of art that she has used very successfully with high school students--everyone was taking notes and asking questions. Another of our artists was the moving force behind an evening in which the poetry students read their work for the rest of us.

Very special to me were the artists in the Lake Logan class who have taken my classes numerous times over the years. I'm grateful for the way they have trusted me with their personal journeys, and rewarded to see the growth in their work. And of course, I'm also grateful for those newer to me, excited to get to know them better, and hope that we will work together again in the future.

For everyone this past week, there were moments of insight, energizing thought, and transformation--and for quite a few, real breakthroughs in their work. It was a magical week.

Monday, September 08, 2014
  thoughts on style

After my last post, about the persistence of landscape references in my work over the years, abstracted images from Mayo have continued to appear in nearly every painting. Several recent ones seem close to representational in their dark, coastal shapes and swaths of pale watery looking texture. I am thinking of these aspects of the sea coast as I paint, while at the same time enjoying a playful freedom with shape and line. (Above and below, Belderrig #3 and #4, 20"x16" oil and mixed media on panel.)

In art history class many of us remember the range of styles in modern/contemporary art described as a continuum. This was a way of saying that there aren't precise cut-off points among the myriad of art styles, from pure abstraction through to photo-realism.  A particular abstract painter's work, for example, could be placed somewhere on an imaginary line,between an artist who was more representational in style and someone else who was less so.
Although that is a useful way to explain the big picture, it's not so simple when you consider the life's work of any one artist. Many range back and forth over that continuum over time, or even within a series or a small body of work, and they cannot be so neatly categorized. Within the context of exploring particular ideas, this approach can open up greater meaning and expressive potential.

Since seeing his work last year in Dublin, I have admired the work of the late Irish artist, Tony O'Malley. He was a man who took all of his life's experiences and transformed them into source material for his work. This work ranged from austere wood sculptures to playful, colorful paintings, sometimes non-representational, and other times with images of himself, his wife and friends, and various objects in his world. All of it is clearly his, very personal, very direct. It seems he never worried about whether something was abstract enough, or too minimalist, or too obscurely non-referential. Below, some photos showing the range of his work:

I'm thinking of this in relation to my own recent work, because in spite of knowing better, I sometimes listen to a voice that warns me not to betray my identity as an abstract painter, and which grows more insistent the closer I edge to realism. These past few weeks though, I've done well at shutting off that voice. While I do of course identify as an abstract painter, I am OK with imagery that comes through in the context of a particular visual exploration (in this case, the dramatic Mayo Coast.) The work I've been doing is compelling to me--paintings that seem to need to be painted, and I am including them on my personal continuum.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014
  thoughts on landscape

Like much of my current work, the shapes in the painting above (Ceide Fields, 36"x48" oil and mixed media on panel.) suggest land forms--craggy, textural--set against a pale background that can be read as sky or sea. This work comes out of my time in County Mayo, Ireland, a place where the strong shapes and complex textures of the bog and seacoast captured my eye and heart.

Landscape has been at the core of my work since my earliest years of art-making, and I've approached it in various ways over time--beginning with direct, representational recording of what I observed. Occasionally in these early days I would include a female figure representing "me." Below is an intaglio print from my undergrad years in which such a figure, seated in the lower left of the image, looks out at the scene. I see this now as an attempt to express my emotional connection to the experience of being alone in nature.

At the core of all my work over time is the expression of this connection.  Over time my work has evolved into abstraction emphasizing color and texture which seem to me to be the most direct conduits to the feelings and memories I associate with specific places. While I've allowed in some landscape imagery, for the most part I've downplayed the sense of "scenery" (suggested by pictorial depth and obvious clues such as horizon lines) in my work of the past 15 years or so.

So I'm a bit surprised by some of the work coming out of my time in Mayo in its fairly obvious references to what I remember from my walks and drives along the coast and through the boglands. Below is another recent painting, Mayo Coast #7, 40"x30" which includes dark, rock-like shapes and the suggestion of falling water. 

Surprising to find these images emerging--but also somehow liberating. I feel that I'm tapping into some essence or energy of that place that allows me to play more freely and directly with landscape imagery than I have in the past. Along with the shapes suggestive of rocks, bog paths, foliage and cliffs, I've also been including lines that refer to mapping, charting, writing and gridlike designs--lines imposed over the surface of the work that counteract its more representational aspects. Some of these lines are adapted from stratigraphic drawings shared with me by Greta Byrne, the archaeologist at Ceide Field near Ballycastle where I have stayed in Mayo as well as from the maps of ancient stone walls at that site.  

I think of this recent work as expressing two aspects --inner and outer--of my personal experience in the Mayo landscape. The inner experience includes the the drama of weather and vistas, the gentleness of the bog, the crashing of surf, the quieting of thought, the moods of the time of day and the feeling of oneness with nature. The outer experience includes purely visual observations as well as awareness of ancient sites, geology and geography, culture and history. I'm enjoying the merging of the inner and outer experiences in these paintings.



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