Recently, artist and blogger Lynette Haggard
asked me some questions about myself and my work for an upcoming post on her site. One of the things she wanted to know was a bit about early influences, and I'm copying some of what I wrote to her below. Interesting timing because I have just returned from a trip in North and South Carolina, and during my trip I had dinner with my 8th grade art teacher, Penny Russell, who is mentioned in the excerpt for Lynette's post.
Her daughter was one of my best friends in high school, and so besides what I learned in class, I also was privy to Mrs. Russell's "real" life at home. I often saw her latest work when I visited the house, and observed the way that various events in her life and in the world influenced her imagery. This was a revelation--the intersection of art and life. I recall a painting she made in response to the Birmingham church bombing of 1963 in which 4 little girls were killed...I realized that art could be about something outside one's own experience, and could express emotions of outrage and sadness. Of course, I did know this in an academic sense--I'd seen reproductions of Picasso's Guernica
for example, but observing this in the work of someone I knew had a more personal effect.
She could also be quite experimental in her techniques--for example I recall a series of drawings made from gravestone rubbings. Another revelation to me, that 2-D art was not just painting and drawing! (I was also rather impressed that she would venture into cemeteries with her art supplies.) And although much of her work was representational, she also made small paintings using a kind of monoprint process, which she viewed as abstracted landscapes, finding and cropping out evocative imagery within the somewhat random process of making the print. I tried some of these myself, and it was my first exposure to creating abstraction with an emphasis on process.
But perhaps what I remember best about those early times at her home was the absolute joy she took in making art. She would show me her work with an attitude of joy and enthusiasm that was infectious.
Below, an excerpt from my answer to Lynette about my early life and influences through young adulthood: I grew up in many areas of the country, because my father's job was to manage large construction projects like tunnels and dams--things that take only a year or two to complete. I identified myself as an artist from an early age, always making things and drawing. Although neither of my parents were artistic or knowledgeable about art, they supported my interest, and supplied me with materials and occasional Saturday art classes. It's probably a bit unusual that they continued to be in favor of my art ambitions past childhood and on through college and graduate school, and for all of that I'm very grateful. Once they took me to visit the elderly sculptor Genevieve Hamlin, who was a friend of my grandmother's. I was about 12, and was awed by my glimpse of her life. Here was a professional artist, serious, focused. She looked at some drawings of mine and gave me an honest critique, then let me ride her horse. It was a magical day.
A couple of art teachers also inspired me early on. One, who taught me in 8th grade, was the first to engage my imagination through abstraction. We're still in touch and I saw her just recently. Another teacher in high school was a role model for professionalism, with her serious demeanor when discussing student work, and high expectations. Later in college, I was inspired by a number of instructors, including a woman with a small child, who demonstrated to me that family life as an artist was possible (I thought of her often when my 2 sons were little.) I had excellent painting and art history instructors in both college (University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, BFA in 1982) and in graduate school (Arizona State University, MFA, 1985.)
The painting above is Gesture #2