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   Welcome to my blog! I'll be posting thoughts about art, photos, happenings, and other things that strike me--and hopefully my readers--as interesting. And please visit my website by clicking the link to the right--thanks!

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

Saturday, September 18, 2021
  studio clear-out

It's been months since my last post, much longer than I have ever paused this blog. But in June, when I would normally have been writing something new, I was in the early stages of a huge project that occupied my whole summer and then some. That's when my husband Don and I began clearing out the house in Wisconsin that was our home for 43 years in order to move permanently to New Mexico. For me, emptying my studio there was the most enormous task of all--a large space  packed with the remains of over three decades of use. 

my studio at the beginning of the clearing out...

As I tackled every corner and shelf I was amazed at what I had accumulated over the years. Apparently I never met a piece of cardboard I could part with, nor any old paint-encrusted tool, odd sized pane of glass or scrap of foam core. There were piles of old panels with bolt holes drilled in the sides from my era of multiple panel paintings and a big stack of demo boards from years of teaching workshops. An old couch, shelves, and lots of small tables and carts had to go. There were boxes of dried up paints, dozens of old cans and other "useful" containers, nature collections of rocks, bones, and shells (these went into the garden), and more pads of drawing paper than I could use in my remaining lifetime. Usable and nontoxic art supplies went to my friend Paula who teaches kids' art classes and other items that had some value found homes with local art friends.  

Of course, all of the above was simply the materials, furniture, and general detritus of studio life--not fun to deal with, but fairly routine once I got into it. The real challenge was what to do with decades of artwork, some of it large and cumbersome, and most of it no more recent than about 2017. I had a flat-file stuffed with works on paper, and shelves of paintings that had come back to me from galleries or had never even been exhibited. Overall there were hundreds of works of art from all stages of my career, and even some things from childhood. 

A pen and ink drawing done in my early 20s

It was hard to know where to begin with all of this, and I was very grateful to the friends who pitched in to help me when I was overwhelmed. Although I did hit some snags of indecision, the basic strategy of three categories promoted by decluttering experts worked well--things to sell/donate, things to trash, and things to keep. The simplicity of these three categories was helpful in making decisions and I'd suggest them for anyone else facing a studio clear out. (Noticeably absent is a category for "I'm not sure...I'll deal with it later". Of course, there was some of that but I did try to make decisions in the moment and stick with them.) 

Here is how it worked for me: 

What I sold: Thankfully, I sold a lot of work--to friends, to people who came to my studio, and to people who bought online (I ran a successful virtual sale using my public page on Artwork Archive--there are still some available pieces listed there.) My local gallery was very generous in promoting my older work and with excellent results. I sold the really old work at a deep discount, and the more recent (but still older) work at 40-60% off. Although I am not crazy about selling my own work in person --for me it can be awkward and stressful--I did have some great experiences with both new and old collectors. The amounts of sales ranged widely--from a major purchase by a couple who drove all the way from Chicago, and several large pieces shipped to online buyers, to many smaller pieces on paper and panel. The payment for one of my college paintings (yes, I kept some of those!) was a large bag of frozen panfish caught by a sweet single dad and his kids. We ate a lot of fish for the rest of the summer!

my studio sale

What I donated/gave away: One of the first things I did to clear some space in the studio was donate three large paintings to the local branch of Mayo Hospital where they were installed in a waiting room. My son Ross and his wife Kara took at least a dozen things for their new home, and other paintings and works on paper went to friends. I also set out a pile of drawings and prints that studio visitors could take, and the remainder of those quickly disappeared when I dropped them off at a local studio warehouse building.  One night I brought some framed works on paper to a gathering of some friends and distributed them from the back of my car as darkness fell. When my friends had made their choices, there were a few old monotypes from my grad school years left. A neighbor guy came over who turned out to be the exact right person to claim those rather strange, surreal prints. I hope he liked them as much in the daylight! I left several large paintings from the same era for the guy who bought our house, after he admired them.

I enjoyed giving these things away. It was practical to do so in that I couldn't deal with pricing everything I had in the studio, or expect to sell it all. But it also felt good to give freely, to spread my work around and to experience the gratitude for the gifts.

paintings installed at Mayo Hospital, Eau Claire WI

 What I trashed: From the beginning I knew there were pieces that had little value, even as give-aways. And there were some pieces, such as some very large old charcoal and pastel drawings, that were simply too hard to deal with. I also had unfinished work and works on paper that had been damaged by mice or mold (my studio suffered from both.) In the beginning of the summer I imagined a ritual bonfire fueled by everything I couldn't sell, give away, or keep. But in the end, it was much easier to get rid of things as I went along. I ripped up works on paper on the spot to keep prevent any second-guessing, and periodically tossed paintings into the big bin where I could not retrieve them. One day I happened to be near the dumpster when they came to empty it, and I watched as a small painting I'd thrown out slid into the back of the truck. For a moment I wanted to rescue it, but like so many other possessions over the summer, I let it go.

 What I kept: Selling/donating and trashing took care of a lot of my old inventory, but nevertheless I filled most of a small U- Haul trailer and the back of my car with paintings and other work to bring back to New Mexico. This was all work that I knew had value and hope to find homes for in the future. It's currently taking up space in my New Mexico studio but there are plans to build a storage area in the near future, and it will also be for sale at the annual Dixon Studio Tour. (For anyone local reading this, the Tour --in person--is November 6-7 this year, and if you want to preview at my studio, just email me at crowellart@yahoo.com.)

From comments made when I shared my experiences on social media and with friends over the summer, I know how common the need is to clear out a studio. Many other artists have either faced or anticipate facing similar downsizing in the future. For lots of people, this is something to dread and avoid. It took me over thirty years to deal with the task, and then only because we were selling our property. But from the other side of the process, I can say it was all worthwhile. 

I'm also resolving to prevent such accumulation in the future. Every year, the artist Agnes Martin's would destroy any work that did not meet her high standards. While I don't think I can be quite that resolute, it's something to think about...
Sunday, May 09, 2021
  pandemic sketchbooks
As we begin to emerge from the heaviest pandemic restrictions I'm reflecting on a ritual I began in the studio almost a year ago--each day making a quick image in a sketchbook. Over time I've accumulated nine volumes of mixed media drawings as a result of this practice. This is a drawing from June 2020, near the start of this practice: 

I began keeping these sketchbooks without a real plan or intention that I would do a drawing each day, and so at first the entries were more sporadic. They were simply a way to discharge some emotion at the start of a painting session and to settle into the day's other work. I'd never had specific studio rituals in the past so I was not inclined to think of them in that way, although after several months creating these pages did become my habit. 

At the time, I began the sketchbooks, I was also doing many other, larger works on paper as a large component of my studio time, and appreciating the immediacy of that expression. So, it seemed natural to do start these smaller ones as well. Channeling some of my fluctuating emotions of last summer into this quick and intuitive work was calming and satisfying. Later, when most of my focus shifted back to paintings on panel, I continued the sketchbooks and they evolved into the daily ritual that they are now., I even take my sketchbook and materials along if I am away from the studio for a day. Thus one is from November 2020:

It is natural to look for symbolism connected to pandemic issues in these images, and I sometimes see it. All of the images are done intuitively, with no pre-planning, and as such have reflected my states of mind. For example, a recurring theme is geometric, orderly lines or shapes drawn over a more loose or chaotic background as in these two from early winter:

Another recurring motif is small marks that suggest footsteps, rocks, or places where I pause when out walking, an activity that has brought peace in the midst of the anxieties of the past year. These often travel across an image with a sense of movement, as in this page from December 2020:

The sketchbook images also include references to the New Mexico landscape with its canyons and rock faces, which has been my refuge in the past year and more. Although I've gotten away from obvious landscape imagery in my paintings, I am free with referential imagery when it comes through in my sketchbooks:

The process I use in all of these is simple and direct, using a variety of water-based and drawing media and tools. I have a dedicated place in the studio where I keep my materials in a typically messy array (it was cleaned up quite a bit for this photo): 

Does this daily practice feed into my larger paintings in oil and cold wax? I believe so, although not in a very direct way due to the differences in media and attitude. I think of the sketchbook drawings as important to me in their own right, personal and intimate like a journal can be. That said, I sometimes think about publishing a selection as a small book to share them with a wider audience--a project for some time in the future. For now, they continue to engage me and ground me every day, even as life begins to open up post-pandemic, and I wonder how they will continue to evolve in the future.  

Saturday, March 13, 2021
  a strange year

 A year ago today I was in residence at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ballycastle, Ireland, trying to take in the news about the spread of Covid 19. My workshop there, scheduled for the end of March, involved an international group of students and I needed to make a decision about canceling. At the time, it was hard to know what to do. Advice ranged from going ahead and teaching those who could still make it, to packing everything up and booking the first flight I could. A doctor friend at home advised me to wait in Ireland until the threat passed rather than risk air travel. He figured it might be a couple of weeks until things were safe. 

I took a long walk in the bog to sort things out. 

March 13, 2020, Ballycastle, Ireland

Today I think back to those panicked but far more innocent days with astonishment. Of course, I did leave Ireland rather than wait it out. I flew back to New Mexico on St. Patrick's Day, feeling the urgent need to get home. And home is where I have been, along with most everyone else on the planet.

Many of us are taking this week to look back at the unfolding events a year ago, and to reflect on how we have struggled, but also gained in personal ways. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I've had some sad and anxious days. But the freedom I felt in the studio with no deadlines or demands was a positive effect of the pandemic. It was my refuge, and overall I was productive, experimental, and focused when I was there.

As I take stock of my work from 2020 and early 2021, I see a range of directions, with some cross-over of ideas. At the same time, I worked in so many ways that connections are mostly unclear. I do assume intuition is at work, and that in time, I'll  understand the work from this year in a more cohesive way.

the studio today, March 13, 2021

But within the variety of my output, there are two main bodies of work I can identify: works on paper and paintings done with oil and cold wax. The oil paintings have been mostly explorations of bright, saturate color without distinct large shapes or edges, but some have evolved in an earthier or very pale palette, and a few do have definite shapes. 

These are a couple of recent ones in the colorful category. 

Mesa, 48"x36" oil/cold wax on panel 

Chroma #8, 38"x50" oil/cold wax pn panel

In painting, I'm surrounded day after day with color, shape, and texture, building up the surface. It is a slow, tactile evolution, an immersion into feeling and memory, and the joy of the paint's materiality. 

The works on paper are a very different experience. Almost all are done quickly, in one setting, and range from small images in my daily sketchbook to images on larger sheets of around 22x30 inches. Media have included charcoal, ink, gouache, acrylic, pencil, and pigment stick. I love exploring how the different materials interact. Many of these pieces share a compositional similarity-- a dominant cliff-like shape--and marks and small shapes appear in almost all. 

page from Pandemic Sketchbook, mixed media on paper

untitled, 18"x24" mixed media on paper

My approach with these is impulsive, direct, simple, sometimes playful. Certain shapes and types of lines keep appearing, and it pleases me to find ways to bring these to the paintings. In the recent painting below the small ovals come directly from my sketchbooks and works on paper, and symbolize footsteps, or stones in the path. I am gratified by this cross-over of ideas, and I want more of this to happen.

Fraglie #2, 40"x40" oil./cold wax on panel 

Although these two bodies of work, on panel and paper, are very different at first glance, I do see other connections. Each is an interpretation of landscape--the experience of walking almost daily in the arroyos and mesas around my New Mexico home. This area of New Mexico is vast, rugged and rocky, with volcanic boulders, petroglyphs, dead trees, twisted roots, and cacti. The climate is arid and at times the orange and gold colors of the mesas and cliffs seem unreal. I feel this dreamlike atmosphere in all the work, along with the influences of color and line.

But other than that, pointing to specific similarities and connections eludes me. I wonder if the overall variety in this work comes from the uncertainties of 2020. In day to day life, inside and outside the studio, my normally steady, basically optimistic outlook often broke. The shifting realities of the times demanded flexibility and balance and when that failed my emotions often took over. To cope, some days I gravitated to self-reflection, and retreat in the studio, and on others to physical activity--hiking, wandering, and encounterng the rough edges of nature. Some days I wanted only solitude, others I craved social life. These up and down days are all mixed into the work, and in the end, maybe is all that needs to be said. Like many artists, I suspect I will look back at the work from 2020 as being as perplexing, challenging, and unexpected as the year itself. 

Sunday, January 03, 2021
  what changed

"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.                                                

Monday, October 19, 2020

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

Saturday, August 08, 2020
  being here
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. 

Figure study, pencil and clear gesso on mineral paper

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.

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. 

Monday, June 15, 2020
  high desert thoughts

It was not until this, our fourth winter in New Mexico that I started to pay attention to the huge area of canyons, cliffs, and arroyos directly across the highway from our road. Before this year, it was part of the majestic high desert landscape surrounding our town but I didn't think to explore it. As a midwesterner, I'm not used to assuming I can walk in places that might be private. But now I know that, like so much of this part of the country, these are public lands under the Bureau of Land Management. There are no signposts or marked trails, but you are free to wander. 

Once I began to explore this landscape its beauty opened up to me. Now I walk there four or five times a week, always grateful to live just down the road from such a wild and amazing place. In the past months, I've valued this area even more as a place of peace and refuge. 

Just off the highway a quarter-mile from our house, this wide, flat area, threaded with large and small arroyos is bounded further in by spectacular cliffs and odd rock formations called hoodoos. Though I seldom see any other people when I'm there, ATVs have made convenient walking tracks through the more accessible areas. Over time I've gotten familiar with most of the trails, tracks, and arroyos, and I now have a mental map of how to get to certain favorite places. I especially like to cross over the ridge of rock and go down into the next valley, where highway noises and sights of the village disappear. I've also climbed up high to see how the various canyons and cliffs connect in the larger landscape. 

Cholla cactus in bloom in the arroyo

Sometimes, I walk mainly for exercise, paying attention to my fitness app, and sticking to the main trails where I can walk at a good pace. Or I have a destination in mind and head there directly. But more often I just wander and look, and get lost in what I see, the textures, colors, lines, and shapes of the land. The dry, packed earth is a neutral background for nature's drawings--heaps of deadwood and tumbleweeds, cacti, juniper, and wildflowers, deep crevasses and odd shapes in the cliffs, intricate patterns in rocks, the skittering trails of lizards.  

Inevitably these visual impressions are finding their way into my work. Shapes and colors of cliffs and boulders, and mark-making inspired by the plant life and rocks. But beyond abstracting from the visual aspect of the landscape alone, there are ideas and feelings that interest me. In several recent paintings I've built up texture and somewhat random shapes and marks to try and capture the sense of fragile and intricate life forms in this seemingly barren environment. Warm, subtle color is broken by jagged and frenetic line. The high desert is a place of contrast with a sense oif deep time. 

Untitled, 16"x16", oil/cold wax on panel. 

I've also been using dry stalks and other plant remains that I pick up on my walks for mark-making in paintings and drawings. 

Here is a drawing done with gouache and ink. The gestural marks are made with a dry yucca leaf. 

Untitled, about 12"x18", gouache, ink on paper

It amuses me to gather these bits of nature, bring them back to the studio and play around with what kind of marks can be made. But they also serve a serious purpose of connecting the work directly with what grows in the desert. I feel I'm getting closer to expressing an essence of this place, at the same time that new ideas keep unfolding. 



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       Rebecca Crowell