Writing this blog during the pandemic has been a challenge. I'm healthy and doing OK, but coming up with anything original to say that is hopeful or philosophical has led to writer's block. There's plenty going on in the studio though, and so for now, I'll put the rest of the world aside.
This has been a time of exploration in the studio, free of outside demands--the longest stretch of time I've had for just my work in years The walls in my New Mexico studio are now covered with works on paper, media experiments, panels large and small, and even figure studies--they are part in my overall release of expectations, and indulgence in play. This one is from a series made from taking textural rubbings from a rock.
I'm on another side trip with some of my paintings. A recent series explores oil/cold wax, pigment stick, and pencil on a background of exposed Venetian plaster. The isolated image on plaster forming its own shape seems connected to the figure studies, and other drawings and small mixed media work that I've been doing since March. There is a clarity to these paintings on plaster that feels calming.
|Figure study, pencil and clear gesso on mineral paper|
|oil/cold wax and pigment stick on Venetian plaster, 16x16"|
A friend said it seems that I am looking for a new relationship with the landscape, and this helped me understand my current focus. Overall, I feel that I’m edging closer to expressing experience and essence, and to being freer with shape, mark-making, and texture. This is a painting in progress that shows this looser approach.
|Work in progress, 23x26" oil/cold wax on panel|
For a long time, I've painted with an underlying awareness of traditional landscape painting, including horizon lines and a sense of depth. Even my most abstract work has been more about countering these conventions than escaping them. But at times, I've felt the limitations of this dynamic, and I've noticed this more in the past few months in New Mexico than ever before. There is something mystical and dreamlike here that inspires me in new directions. In the past few months, I’ve walked nearly every day in this rugged and strange place of canyons, rock spires, arroyos, and unfamiliar plant and animal life. I am still taking ideas from from the shapes, colors, and textures that I see, but loosening their more concrete or literal ties.
|Rocky cliff near my New Mexico home|
Oddly, my most recent oil and cold wax paintings harken back to a more atmospheric approach that I developed in the past. But this new work feels very specific to my experiences walking in the high desert. The arid environment, the textures of rock and tangled deadwood are present as abstract elements in the painting below. But in working on it, I never felt it had to conform to any pictorial conventions, It's hard to explain, especially as I am in the middle of these ideas. Time will tell where this is heading but for now, studio days feel loose, open-ended, and exciting.
in these times
As ordinary life has been overturned by the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of artists are having trouble staying on track with their work. Anxiety over the news, disruption of routines, and limited or no access to studios and materials all make it hard to focus and create. Yet we probably need creative involvement more than ever for our emotional well-being and to feel connected with other artists.
As many of us are sharing helpful ideas and encouragement, an episode of The Messy Studio Podcast came to mind that was recorded back in December. You can click here for the link to the episode. The topic is Studio Struggles, and In it Ross and I focus on insights and suggestions for dealing with creative block. At the time we recorded it, only a few months ago, it made sense to talk about a creative block as a normal part of the creative process. Today a block is often the result of outside forces related to the outbreak of COVID 19, and is accompanied by some harsh realities of the changing art world, such as show cancelations and gallery closures.
Yet no matter the cause, the ways we experience creative blocks are similar. They are agonizing times, full of self-doubt and fear that we will never bounce back. We long for the satisfaction and excitement of times when things were going well. Right now, even the normal studio days of a month ago can seem ideal in the light of our new reality.
|Goodbye to Ireland, 14"x11" oil/cold wax on panel|
The effect of the pandemic on my own work has been the urge to open up emotionally and to see where that takes me, rather than continuing on with ideas I was interested in before last month. I don't believe that the other ideas have disappeared, but they are being overtaken by more immediate concerns and I'm giving in to that. The recent painting above seems to contain the sadness I felt at leaving Ireland abruptly in mid-march, in the middle of my expected time there.
The red in the painting below is to me a vibrant color of life and strength. As I worked with this color I felt energized and powerful, but more difficult pandemic-induced emotions of anxiety and disorientation were also in the mix. To me there was something healing about working with such strong color, shape, and contrast.
|Untitled, 20"x16" cold wax/oil on panel|
A difficult aspect of creative block is self-blame--feeling badly about ourselves because we've gone off track. Working from pure emotion may be a good way back, But it seems important right now to give ourselves credit for pursuing our art in any way we can. Our normal output may be way down, especially if we’re restricted to minimal supplies, a makeshift studio, or distracted by the news and the needs of our families. Our work may seem disjointed or out of character. But this can be a freeing time without concerns for productivity, pleasing others, or meeting deadlines. Whatever studio time we can manage is completely our own.
PS: Here's a list of previous podcasts on The Messy Studio that are potentially helpful in our current circumstances. Have a listen, or listen again...and share...all of these and lots more can be found in the listing on our website:
Episode 105: Why Walk (relationship of walking to the creative process)
Episode 102: Studio Struggles (discussion of creative block referenced in this blog post)
Episode 100: the Art of the Side Hustle (new income streams)
Episode 99: Branching Out (working in other media)
Episodes 88: Working on Your Website Part 1 (a good time for this project?)
Episode 70: The Importance of Drawing (an idea if your space is limited)
Episode 47: Creating on a Budget (no need to explain that one!)
translations: painting and poetry
My current exhibit (with Jerry McLaughlin
), Translations: Painting and Poetry
, at Jennifer Perlmutter Gallery
in Lafayette, California is up for another week and a half, until March 14. If you're in the area and haven't had a chance to see it, I hope you will stop in.
My paintings in this exhibit are based on work by the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney. I was first drawn to Heaney because his sources are so deeply rooted in the culture, landscape, and history of Ireland, a country I have grown to love over many visits. When I was asked to choose a poet’s work as my reference for this exhibit, I thought of him immediately. My appreciation grew as I began to read his work more deeply, a rewarding aspect of this project. His poetry evokes in me a longing for the earthy beauty of Ireland, while his observations of the complex inner lives of humans are profound and moving. Stylistically, his work is built on complex rhythms, meanings, and resonances that have continued to unfold for me over time.
|with Ground of Being, 68"x40"|
Responding to poetry as abstract painting is a new way of working for me, and I found that Heaney’s words led me to a more conceptual approach than I have used in the past. They led me to use a combination of geometric minimalism, organic textures, and subtle but specific imagery. In some cases, the images emerged as direct reference to certain words or phrases he uses, and other times they are simply what came to me intuitively as the result of immersing myself in his work. But although there are certain images from his work in the mix, my own memories, associations, and ideas are also strong factors.
|Squarings, each 12"x12" |
My suite of small paintings, Squarings
, is based on Heaney’s long poem of that name. Heaney’s Squarings
consists of four sections of twelve short poems each with twelve lines. This geometric structure influenced my interpretation of twelve 12”x12” square paintings. I painted these during a residency at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ireland in March of 2019, while reading and re-reading parts of the poem each day. I set out to complete this series during my residency in Ireland so that I was immersed the whole time in the country at the heart of Heaney’s work. The poem examines dualities including the material and spiritual worlds, the present and past, and private and shared experience. It is considered the most fluid and intuitively written of his many works. The other paintings in the exhibit also draw on ideas from Heaney’s poem Squarings
, with the exception of St. Kevin and the Blackbird,
which refers to a poem of that name that speaks to me about the creative process.
|St. Kevin and the Blackbird, 42"x36" |
A wonderful aspect of this exhibit was the opportunity to exhibit for the first time with my dear friend and business partner, Jerry McLaughlin. Here is an excerpt of what we wrote for our shared statement that is posted in the gallery:
While the term Translations indicates our shared intention to retain the spirit and ideas of this poetry, our work is not meant to illustrate that work. Rather, our approach is to reflect our experience as readers of the work, as the poet’s words bring our own thoughts, feelings, and memories to the surface. These paintings may best be described as conversations with our selected poets in which each of us adds meaning.
Because abstraction defies linear thought and exact description, it seems a perfect fit for this interpretation. The poems themselves are complex, evocative, and multi-layered, with no one right way to read or respond to them. The process we both use in our work is also in alignment with dense and layered meaning. Oil mixed with cold wax medium is built up gradually in layers allowing for complex surfaces and glimpses of underlying history.
Although the two poets we chose to work with--Frederico Garcia Lorca (for Jerry) and Seamus Heaney (for Rebecca)--are different in many ways, the work that we produced for this exhibit is congruent in terms of structured compositions, organic textures, and earthy, neutral color. Perhaps this points to our shared sensibilities as close friends and collaborators. Without prior discussion we each gravitated to a poet who distills the complexities of experience into grounded yet nuanced words, and this is reflected in our interpretations of that work.
|Jerry and I with Jennifer Perlmutter, gallery owner|