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   Also please check out my second blog, The Painting Archives to see older (pre-2004) paintings for sale.

Saturday, March 30, 2013
  work at serenbe

My main focus at AIR Serenbe (near Atlanta, Georgia, where I am artist in residence until April 4th) has been on work for my solo exhibit, Beneath the Surface, to be held at the Pratt Museum in Homer, Alaska, opening August 2nd, 2013. I'm very grateful for this time and opportunity to hone in on my ideas and to spend long days in the spacious, airy studio here.

The idea for Beneath the Surface grew out of a conversation I had about two years ago in my studio, with my brother Aron (Dr. Aron Crowell, Director of Arctic Studies at the Anchorage Museum.) He said that my work evoked for him certain aspects of archaeology—the weathered looking surfaces, the layering and stratification evident in my process. He also thought that some of the linear elements in my work resembled the drawings that he and other archaeologists make to describe the geology and features when excavating a site (called stratigraphic drawings.)

As a result of this talk, I began to think about the idea that I might show my work in an archaeological context-- to present work that spoke to the beauty and mystery of archaeology from an artist’s perspective, and contacted Holly Cusak-McVeigh, the then-Curator at the Pratt Museum in Homer (a museum of Arts, Science and Culture, located on Katchemac Bay on the Kenai Peninsula, about 200 miles south and west of Anchorage.) She loved the idea and was eager to see it become a reality. Early on, she and I decided to include objects from the museum’s collection that had been unearthed during archaeological digs. These will be displayed in the gallery along with the paintings, to honor the source of the ideas for the work and in the hopes that a visual bridge will be created between the ancient objects and the contemporary art work.

My nephew, composer David Crowell, also became involved in the exhibit--he and I were interested in the collaborative aspect of producing sound and images that would work together, and he wrote and recorded a score specifically for the show. These compositions will be played in the gallery during the show to enhance the contemplation of the work and reference his knowledge and experience of the Kenai Peninsula, where he has spent considerable time.

Holly Cusak-McVeigh has since left her position at the Pratt for a teaching post in Indiana, but continues to be involved in suggesting source ideas and references, and her input has been very valuable. I was able to spend a day with her on my way to Serenbe earlier this month, and we shared some wonderfully intense hours of brainstorming for the exhibit. She and my brother have both provided me with lots of useful background information, suggestions and answers to questions that arise as I work. Obviously, I am not an archaeologist (though I’ve had an interest in it for years) and being able to turn to these experts with questions has been informative and stimulating for my artist’s brain.

Preparing for this exhibit has occupied much of my time and thought at AIR Serenbe. It has been a challenge because my work does not typically arise from a specific theme—coming intuitively as it does, from my experiences in life and travel. But in this case, I have needed to step outside my own frame of reference to explore one defined by the exhibition proposal, and the mission of the Pratt Museum. While the Pratt has a fine art gallery where my work will be displayed, it is primarily a museum of culture and history, and all art exhibits need to be keyed in some way to the specific area and those who live (and have lived) in the region.

To that end, as I paint I am referencing several books ( edited and written in part by my brother) about the region and its long history, photos of artifacts from the Pratt, copies of stratigraphic drawings and other information provided by the Pratt--as well as memories of my own from visiting the area back in 1999, and memories of archaeological digs I participated in during my teens. Since the basic idea for the show came from aspects of my work that already exist, that bring to mind ancient surfaces and the layering/strata of earth, it is not a huge change of direction for me. There is still a strong intuitive aspect to the work, as I strive to make my images work as paintings while containing ideas that relate to the core ideas of the show. But there is a shift in how I am approaching the work, as I aim to bring in these specific references without being too literal or illustrative.

While I wondered at first if the parameters in place might feel limiting, instead I find them rather liberating. Steven Nachmanovitch, in his book Free Play, discusses the need for structure as part of the creative/improvisational process, and in this case, instead of my usual need to filter structure from a big soup of ideas, observations and memories, I have a ready-made structure in terms of visual references. They free me from the constant need to figure out the direction of the work. Instead of relying completely on intuitive searching, I’m working toward a more specific end, and this is challenging and exciting. I find that I must call upon everything I know about technique and building a painting in order to get there. I don’t mean that I start with or hold to strong preconceived images-- every painting I’ve worked on so far has gone through the kinds of changes that are part of my process, as I build up layers of paint, color and texture. But having a clear theme and general intentions for the painting provide guidance, and I’m enjoying this rather different way of working.

A challenge I have yet to tackle is writing an artist statement for the show. Fortunately I have some time left to do this, Understanding the work is coming along as I produce it-- I’m figuring it out as I go. Yesterday, after beginning to write this post, some core ideas of the work and the concept of the exhibit came to mind, the beginnings perhaps of my statement:

The beauty of ancient surfaces. The mystery of buried objects. The wonder inspired when vestiges of human lives are unearthed after many centuries. The science and knowledge involved in locating and excavating ancient sites. The endurance of stone, shell, and bone.

The photos below show a few works in progress in the Serenbe studio.

This all sounds very exciting, Rebecca. I like your beginnings very much and look forward to seeing more.
Rebecca, Your coming show is a fabulous opportunity. The work in progress is fabulous. I find the work soothing and strong. The focus between realism and art blend beautifully.

thanks both of you--I don't usually talk or show much about work that is in progress and your remarks are encouraging. (One of the pieces photographed earlier just went through drastic changes!)
What a fantastic collaboration! It appears that this body of work will be very interesting. I look forward to photos of the installed exhibit! It seems to be such a natural fit for you to work inspired by this topic of age, discovery etc.
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       Rebecca Crowell