the artist's voice
What does it mean to have a unique, personal “voice” in abstract painting, and how does an artist arrive at one? (Or, in some cases, more than one --and is that OK?) How can abstract work, however personal and meaningful to the artist, communicate meaning to others?
I’ve been working on a presentation for my upcoming Master Class at Shake Rag Alley (Mineral Point, WI) on these topics, which arise often in all of my Oil&Wax Workshops
, from the introductory level through more advanced levels. Along with new techniques, the artists in my classes naturally want to bring meaning and personal style to this new way of working, and for it to have a unique and individual quality that viewers will be drawn into. Some are new to abstraction—sensing that there is more to it than creating pleasing visual compositions—but unsure of how to find their way. Some have been working abstractly for years but are looking for a stronger connection between their work and their inner lives—for what can be brought into the work that will make it stronger and more individualized. Others are looking for a way to integrate diverse styles or voices, or perhaps to find a way to cast old habits aside.
Questions about meaning, personal voice , how to infuse our work with our individuality and how to communicate with viewers are some of the most important ones that we can ask, in any style or medium. But for the abstract artist, creating ‘something out of nothing” these issues are especially challenging. All of the discussions and presentations I use in my workshops address the issue of personal voice and meaning in one way or another—I have made power points on abstraction, form and content, visual thinking and self-critique—but my latest presentation addresses these issues more directly. I am interested enough in this topic to consider expanding my ideas at some point into book form, but for now I have this synopsis:
I would define voice or style as a consistent, but not rote, approach to painting that arises from an artist’s own experience. It is like a personal language --expressive, flexible, and able to be discerned by others. It evolves out of reflection and inner knowledge, and possesses its own logic and consistency. When other people can hear and respond to that voice, an artist is communicating.
In abstraction, specific meaning is rarely the point, but rather a stage has been set to engage the viewer’s own imagination, associations, and memories. It is surprisingly hard to find that stage in a way that also reflects the artist’s own individuality, and creates the possibility for a visual dialogue with the viewer.
While style is made up of basic art elements—line, color, texture, composition and the rest—manipulating or analyzing these is only one way in which artists create and viewers understand the work. There is something harder to define—a reflection of the artist’s character, personality and what they have lived through that comes through and distinguishes the work of one mature artist from another, even if they are superficially similar. I liken it to the way that we can recognize a friend toward us from quite a distance—the persons gait, stance, height, the shape of their clothing—all combine to give us the right clues. There is the sense of knowing the person intuitively—just as we can know a Pollock from a DeKooning at a glance. Paintings too have a character, an energy that is highly personal.
Even when an artist works in different styles or approaches over the years, a consistency is usually evident that gets back to this basic, hard to define character. Because of this, I see no need to advise anyone to stay with, or to seek only one style or voice, as long as the work is coming form the core. Over time, there may be cross-pollination and integration of one’s various voices, and this can lead to some very interesting work. Or the work may remain as distinct bodies or series of work and speak about that particular time in a person's life and experience.
How does an artist infuse a painting with individuality and character? What are some ways to access thecore, and connect with deep aspects of the self? (I do believe that the deeper we go into our own individuality, the better we will connect with viewers. That may seem paradoxical—but aren't we all more connected more strongly in deep, rather than superficial ways?)
The most important thing I can say about the process of digging deep is that it takes time and patience. But it is an exciting journey—fueled by ideas from the outer world (from other artists, museum visits, art books and from absolutely anything else that elicits interest in the artist) as well as from the inner world of dreams, memories and ideas. All of this in addition to long hours in the studio! In my presentation I discuss such practical tips as keeping a visual journal, making lists of influences and sources, and looking for clues in older work about persistent ideas, symbols or content that can be carried forth.
On a very simple level, there is only one thing to know. The voice is already there, and just needs to be brought forth. Many artists have described this process as “getting out of my own way” and certainly, the subconscious is a powerful source of artistic voice. But I advocate feeding the conscious mind too—reading, writing, studying other artists, keeping journals, sketching, investigating anything that pulls you in. What is added to the subconscious voice by being well-informed, curious and introspective may well what give your artistic voice a distinctive character.
looking ahead: summer classes and ireland
As winter finally melts away in Wisconsin (we had snow just last week) my plans for summer and fall are taking on more reality. I have planned for some down time in between various workshops and exhibits, but it will be a busy time from now through November. A brief run-down of what is ahead:
Later this month, the first Oil&Wax Master class will convene at Shake Rag Alley
in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. It's been very gratifying to follow the progress of many of the artists who have come to both my Introductory and Level Two workshops over the past four years, and I look forward to welcoming a group of these experienced painters to this advanced level class. I envision it as a sort of mini-conference, with presentations by several of class members, discussions, new ideas, suggested projects, and a focus on finding one's artistic voice. The class will end on Saturday night with an opening at Brewery Pottery Gallery for Explorations: 13 Journeys in Oil and Cold Wax Medium
--perhaps the first invitational exhibit of cold wax paintings ever...featuring members of the Master Class and last year's Level Two class at Shake Rag Alley. I am hoping to hold more Master Classes in the future, as I know that interest level is high for this advanced class.
In June I will spend two weeks teaching at Cullowhee Mountain Arts on the campus of Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC--first a Level Two class and then an Intro level (the level two class is filled; there are still openings in the Intro class--click here
for more information.) This is my second year teaching at CMA, and I highly recommend the program--a week-long, intensive immersion experience in the studio and elsewhere, with evening programs and the opportunity to meet faculty and students from various disciplines. The photo below is from last year's class at CMA:
July will be a month in the studio, for finishing and shipping the paintings for Beneath the Surface
, my solo show at the Pratt Museum
in August in Homer, Alaska. At the very end of the month, I'll fly to Homer to help install the show and attend the opening on Aug. 2nd. After that, I head to Anchorage to teach an Oil&Wax Workshop (now full) and visit with relatives. Before coming home in mid-August, I'll return to Homer to teach a two day Intro workshop at Kenai Peninsula College, August 9-11. There are openings in this class--click here
for more details.
September 6-9 I will be in Telluride, CO for an introductory Oil&Wax Workshop
--spaces are still available. This gorgeous mountain town is one of my favorite places to teach and visit. The photo below was taken several years ago as I rode the gondola between Telluride and Mountain village on a brilliant fall day.
And then, the trip that looms largest in my mind--I leave in early October for the Ballinglen Arts Foundation
in County Mayo, Ireland, for a six-week residency. It is an honor to have been granted a BAF Fellowship, which includes my own cottage and a beautiful studio at the foundation's Centre, in the village of Ballycastle, about a mile from the sea. (The photo at the top of this post is of the village of Ballycastle.) I haven't decided yet what I will focus on in my work, but it will probably be a continuation of my explorations in water-based mixed media that I have done during past residencies. The Foundation hosts 4 or 5 artists at a time and many stay for a considerable length of time, so I am looking forward to meeting and working with the others whose residencies coincide with mine.
Several months ago I inquired about the possibility of teaching an Oil&Wax Workshop during my first week at Ballinglen, an idea that was met with great enthusiasm by the staff. So I am very pleased to announce that registration is now open for the week-long class, October 7-13. The class is structured so that participants have several days of independent work/study or to use as they please. Ballinglen is a world-class facility that caters to professional artists, with lodging in shared, self-catering cottages, and I cannot imagine a better setting for the workshop. Full details may be found here