the comfort zone
In teaching and critiquing art, there is a lot of talk and advice about pushing out of the comfort zone. I've gone along with this idea in a general way, but in the past week I've been thinking about the positive aspects of comfort zone, and when it may be a good thing to remain there. I've been realizing that leaving the comfort zone is a nuanced topic. Maybe my reflections here are because I've been a bit out of my own CZ in the most literal way--I've been away from home teaching at two different locations for much of the past month, and it will be another week until I return. I've been treated very well everywhere I go--but still, I am not home, and home seems to me the very definition of comfort zone.
Home...the place to be yourself, to wear whatever you grab first, to appreciate the routines of the day, to deal with the ups and downs of those who occupy life with you, your family,friends and pets. Out of the comfort zone, away from home, all of this changes--from the basic patterns of where and what to eat to finding a comfortable spot to sit and read. Even in an idyllic setting--like a vacation or painting residency--the changes in basic lifestyle can be uncomfortable at times. Of course positive changes often result from an artist residency or new situation, but generally we choose these adventures rather than being told it is time for one. Thinking we must always push out of our comfort zone is like feeling that as soon as we relax into being at home, we need to figure out the next departure. Sometimes it's good to just be home and appreciate our ordinary experience. (Spoken as one who has not had enough of that lately!)
What is home in terms of painting? I think that is a question to ask yourself as an artist--what feels honest and right to you...in what ways are you are at ease and true to yourself as you work? What routines serve you well and keep things on track? No one else can know these answers for you nor should they demand that you change what works well for you. Home in any sense is a source of joy and comfort, and there is a place for this in our work. I believe it is central to finding an authentic voice as an artist. As an example, an artist in the advanced class at Cullowhee Mountain Arts
(where I am now) commented that she had come to class with the idea that she "ought to" change the green/orange color palette she loves, but decided midweek that it's important to her to keep it, at least for now--a sign to me that she is working out her own authentic style and voice.
In life, opportunities arise--a trip, a new job, a relocation--that require decisive change and sometimes even pulling up roots. These can be life-changing and important to advance our work, our way of thinking, our relationships and we make the choice to act on them based on our needs. The same opportunities for change happen in painting, and in the same way the choice to act on them has to come from within. Instructors or critics who come on strong with the need for big change may not be in tune with your path; knowing what is meaningful and central in your work is vital when considering such advice. At the same time, being open to ideas and suggestions from an objective viewer can open your eyes to things you have not realized. I do find that often people in my workshops want very much to change, to break out of old habits, and I'm happy to push them in that direction. But I also try and determine what they like about their current work and want to retain.
For all of us, the trick is to distinguish dull, useless or worn out routines and aspects of our home comfort zone from those that keep us moving ahead with anticipation and bring pleasure. Just as we sometimes replace an old couch, add on a new room, or even move to a new location, we need to address what no longer serves us or needs to be changed in our work. Change is best when it evolves in an organic way, out of realizing what no longer leads us on or has become dispiriting. Dwelling in your comfort zone for a while may in fact lend strength and solidity to your ideas and to allow new threads to emerge naturally and authentically.
When I taught my first cold wax workshop in 2009, I had no idea of the excitement that would grow around this medium. Artists who have taken my classes now number in the hundreds, and I have taught in a dozen states so far, with classes scheduled ahead for Ireland and Canada. A number of other experienced artists now teach
cold wax workshops, developing and spreading new ideas, techniques and applications. Online, the discussion forum
I started in 2010 now has over 2000 members from around the world, and www.coldwaxpainting.com
, a website that I launched in December of 2012 has racked up over 30,000 page loads.
My mind boggled with these thoughts as I drove to Mineral Point, Wisconsin last weekend to meet with ten artists for my first Master Class--all of whom have taken a class with me at least twice in the past--quite a few of them at the same venue where we were meeting again--a quaint collection of restored 19th century mining cottages called Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts
. (Our own studio was a Quonset hut on the edge of the property, in the process of being renovated and perfect for our messiness.)
Although I enjoy teaching the techniques that are the focus of the introductory level class, my heart lies more with the "why" of abstract painting than the "how" --and so at every level I include presentations that explore ideas and concepts, and encourage discussion of ideas. In my Level Two classes, I include technique, but also exercises that encourage exploration of color and mark-making, and I provide one on one sessions to discuss each artist's personal direction. In working last weekend with my most experienced students, I decided to focus strongly on finding personal "voice" as an abstract artist, and to run the three days as sort of a mini-conference, with lots of time for discussion and stimulating presentations.
There was painting time of course--I spent a half hour with each artist individually to discuss their work, which meant the others were developing their panels. But it was overall a more scheduled and directed experience than workshops I have taught, and I appreciated everyone's willingness to follow along with such enthusiasm and energy.
Spinning out from an exercise in quick drawing (above) the first morning (thanks to Lisa Pressman
for that idea!) the artists created a small series using a few of the quick drawings as inspiration. We then moved on to an exercise in critique and discussion of the series work in pairs, and finally to a wrap-up group session on the third day when the artists showed whatever they wished to share. In this segment, each was asked to speak about his or her work in the manner of a short artist statement, and to ask and receive questions from others in the group.
Prior to the workshop, I'd written to ask if anyone would be willing to contribute a short presentation to the class. So, besides my own power points (about finding your voice and working in series) we were treated to Dianne Martia's
demo on image transfer and other uses of tissue paper; Sara Post's
resources and discussion about the connections between artist books and working in series, and Jim Scherbarth's
slides of his personal journey from tentative beginner to confident, award-winning artist running his own gallery
. Below, Dianne's demo:
The workshop ended on Saturday evening with a reception at Brewery Pottery Gallery
in Mineral Point. Diana Johnston, who owns the gallery with her husband, came up with the idea of having an exhibit of cold wax paintings from members of the Master Class (the invitation was also extended to members of the Level Two class held at Shake Rag Alley in 2011) to coincide with Mineral Point's Gallery Night and Art In Motion Parade. The exhibit-- EXPLORATIONS: 13 Journeys in Oil and Cold Wax Medium--was the perfect ending to the class. I cannot say for sure, but it may be the first ever invitational group show of cold wax paintings. Below, some shots of the exhibit, and a few of the artists (Eve Ozer
, Mark Witzling
, Jim Scherbarth
, Wendy Bachiu
and Sara Post
) with their paintings.
So much for a factual description-- it's much harder, especially with respecting privacy, to describe the emotional aspects of the workshop as these artists (some of whom knew each other from previous classes, while others did not) talked about personal connections to their work, their frustrations, questions and vulnerabilities. There were stories of loss, struggles with confidence and self-image, and also wonderful successes and triumphs.
With finding personal voice as the theme of the class, it was important that the group be open and honest--able to communicate about what is deep and essential in each person's work, and this came forth fairly quickly and deepened over the three days. We also shared plenty of laughs and kidding in addition to the emotional moments and discussions about ideas, process and challenges. The generosity of the artists with their personal stories, and the intense, involved discussions about the work were moving, and created bonds that made it hard to leave on Sunday. I look forward to continued connections with everyone there, and plan to run more Master Classes in the future. I felt that my role throughout was more of a facilitator than a teacher, and I learned a great deal--truly one of the most rewarding experiences of my workshop career so far.