"How did 2020 impact your work?" Recently I asked listeners of The Messy Studio (the podcast I produce with my son) to comment on this question, and I received some very heartfelt and introspective replies. Artists who had felt paralyzed and blocked shared their feelings, as did others who found new directions and insights in their work, and who appreciated the extra studio time that opened up.
All of the replies were efforts to focus on answering this complex question in a few sentences. But in fact most of us could talk for hours about the changes we've experienced and the range of emotions associated with them. As I read through what people wrote, I realized that I could relate to almost everything they said, applied to different stages of my own journey through 2020. My own experience in the studio has been positive overall, but like so many others I've also struggled with the hard emotional impact of this year.
When the pandemic descended in mid-March, I left my artist residency in Ireland abruptly and flew home in a bit of a daze. It was a shattering and scary time, but a new studio was waiting for me in New Mexico with only a few finishing touches still needed to be fully functioning. Like many of the artists who replied to my online question, I appreciated the extra studio time of quarantine, and was especially grateful to have this beautiful, light-filled space which made sheltering in place seem less like a hardship and more like an opportunity.
|in the new studio|
With galleries going into lockdown and nothing much on my calendar, I started work in the new studio feeling unencumbered, free and experimental. Along with painting, I did lots of work on paper with drawing materials and water-based paint. Mark-making and drawing--those very direct expressions of the moment--took on more meaning for me, and I began making a sketchbook drawing as a spontaneous record each day. I also experimented with figurative work and painting on Venetian plaster. In the spirit of expansion, my painting also changed. Although land forms and local color still play a part, I have become interested in expressing a more inner landscape with intense color and less referential imagery. I've continued in all these directions and there are a few more waiting. I don't think I've ever had as many different things going at once, but each has a role in processing these crazy times.
Some recent paintings:
|Red Earth 30"x24" oil/cold wax on panel|
|Chroma #5, 36"x36" oil/cold wax on panel|
The biggest change in my lifestyle has been no travel; three international trips had to be canceled and we did not go back as usual to spend summer in Wisconsin. But the time to really focus on my surroundings here seemed fortunate. I started walking almost every day on trails within about a twenty mile radius, but mostly close to my house. Being out on foot grew my appreciation of the stark beauty of the arroyos, canyons, and mesas along with their plant and animal life, history, and geography All of this, along with the long stretch of uninterrupted studio time, has fed my work.
A scene this October along my road:
Another big change has been the launch of Cold Wax Academy with Jerry McLaughlin, with whom I've been collaborating as Squeegee Press since 2015. Our new format includes a carefully designed program of online instruction and has been very well received. Now that I've made it through the initial tech challenges, I'm really enjoying the challenges and rewards of this very different way of teaching. We have lots of excited and engaged students and are fired up to start a new quarter of lessons this week.
So for the most part, it has been a good year for me in the studio and with my business. But times of doubt and loss of motivation and direction have also hit hard. Like many artists, I wrestled with existential questions of why to make art in such catastrophic times. And also like many, ultimately I see that it's part of being human-- important as a basically optimistic and trusting process. Or maybe I've just realized there is nothing else I do that means as much to me, and I am not about to give it up.
I also went through some difficult periods when paintings went nowhere, when my mind was confused and anxious. After decades of painting, I know and accept that these downtimes happen, but this year they felt more dire. But just as always, they eventually revealed themselves as progress in disguise, incubation periods when ideas were evolving beneath the surface.
My most recent painting, after a lull:
|The Beauty of Arid Places 68"x40" oil/cold wax on panel (diptych) |
Although the end of the year is the traditional time to take stock, we are still in the midst of the pandemic and other distressing news. While we can all find ups and downs in the past year, we really can't see the big picture of how 2020 impacted us until we can truly look back on it.
In my journal this summer I wrote: We're affected in ways we can't really know or describe when we're in the midst of it. How am I shaped by this time of staying in place, in this particular landscape, in this emotional atmosphere of fear and hope?
Hope seems to be the word for 2021. All my best to all of you as we step into the new year, and may we all find clarity and purpose in our work.
This afternoon I took a walk among the cottonwood trees along an arroyo here in Northern New Mexico. This is the first time I've been here at the right time of year to experience their glorious golden luminosity.
A week earlier I was back in Wisconsin for our son Ross's wedding and the leaves there were radiant too, with more reds and oranges than we see in New Mexico. These weeks of autumn color align with a new interest in luminous color that I've been developing in my painting since August. I find myself not just appreciating the leaves for their beauty but looking closely at the effects of light and color. As often happens, nature provides guidance for ideas that are percolating.
Is this new interest in luminous color due to the bright light in my new studio here, or the influence of so many walks in this arid landscape under brilliant sky? Or maybe it's an emotional urge for more color in these anxious times, or simply the desire to try something new. I'm not sure, but my attitude toward color shifted away from earthy neutrals back in August, and I began to think about how to increase the luminosity of my work.
A few weeks before that, a friend had admired a barely-begun painting in which bright colors stood alone without the layers of dark value I typically build in for contrast and depth. I initially dismissed his remarks since the painting was barely started, but in considering how to express luminosity, that conversation came back to me.
I decided to try a painting with only minimal use of dark and neutral colors. Contrast is always important for richness and depth, but this time I concentrated on variations of the complementaries of red and green rather than on strong value contrast. The effect was vibrant and harmonious. I also abandoned the stronger shapes of previous works so that the focus was entirely on color and textural interaction.
Chroma #1, 36"x48" oil/cold wax on panel
I followed this green paintng with a large, bold red one, and two more in an analgous range of yellows, oranges and light greens (below). Each of these felt energetic, even joyous to me, feeding my soul in this difficult time. It's been a while since I have given myself over to the power of color, and for now, it is very satisfying.
Chroma #2, 42"x60" oil/cold wax on panel
Chroma #3, 40"x40" oil/cold wax on panel
Chroma #4, 40"x40", oil/cold wax on panel
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|