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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.

Friday, September 28, 2012
  thoughts on landscape

A year ago I was in Ireland and missed the Wisconsin fall colors, the drama of the leaves bursting into flaming reds and yellows, then dying to a smolder on the ground. By the time we got home in mid-October the autumn show was pretty much over. This year I am loving the spectacular beauty of leaf season which has come on a few weeks early--plenty of time to take it in before leaving for Ireland again, on 10/23.

The scene above is along the road where I often walk with the dog, and in any season there is beauty all around. I am especially fond of the more subtle times of year like early winter and early spring, when earth colors dominate, and the textures of the dormant fields and bare trees are prominent.

In the late 90s when my paintings were fairly literal interpretations of landscape, walks and drives in the Wisconsin countryside often filled my mind with painting ideas. A particular kind of cloud, a tree alone in a field, light reflecting off water, the curve of a hill in late afternoon shadow...I reacted to these sights with specific, focused attention to how I might use them in a painting. (Then, as now, my work took place in the studio rather than in plein air, and although I have always taken a lot of landscape photos, the paintings were done from memory alone.) Sometimes I miss the directness of that process. Noticing something in the landscape, grabbing it with my mind and imagination, and working it out with paint.

Current, below, is one of these paintings from about 1998, 16"x16".

How convoluted and indirect my work is now by comparison. I do still get lots of ideas from the natural world, from its colors, textures, contrasts, compositions. But these ideas are part of a complex stew of visual elements, that now includes aspects of the human-built world, handwriting, scratches and doodles, geometric forms, ancient monuments in Ireland and all sorts of other references that creep in by suggestion. Also the painting process itself--the interaction of color, the building up probing into of layers--creates a very different basis for how the work develops. I have always been somewhat open-ended when I work, but my landscapes were a lot more straightforward in their path from idea to finished painting than what I do now. I love the unpredictability of my current work though, the excitement of discovery, the wild journey from here to there. Tasting this aspect of process oriented work drew me more and more strongly to abstraction over a period of years--though I still consider my art roots to be in landscape and the natural world.

The painting below is Dark Field, 12"x12" oil and mixed media on panel.

Thursday, September 20, 2012
  what's important

This past weekend I attended a memorial service for someone who was a dear friend of mine for 26 years. Dianne was a smart, honest, caring, humorous person who spent four long years dealing with cancer, and for most of that time, she knew it was most likely a terminal disease. Being aware of her impending death led her deep into contemplation about her own life, what she was happy about and what was important for her to do while she still had time. Although contending with the disease took a lot out of her, she managed to determine certain things that she wanted to accomplish, to keep these goals in sight, and to accomplish quite a few of them. Of greatest importance was spending time with her family, but she also organized her finances and papers, revisited places she loved and people from her past and sought out ways to deepen her spirituality. And while the disease forced her into early retirement from her career in social work, she continued to offer insights and professional knowledge to her colleagues and community through articles and videos that she made about end of life issues.

During the months and years in which she prepared for her death, I marveled at how calmly and purposefully Dianne pursued what was important to her, in spite of pain and fatigue. Watching her go through all of this made me wonder how I would handle a terminal diagnosis. What would be my focus if death were not a vague event of the future, but hovering in the near future? Like Dianne, I think I would be mainly concerned with family and friends and spiritual issues. And also like her, I would think about my career, and what I’ve done and what I’d still like to do, and I would feel some obligation to sort out the mess in my studio , to designate how my family should deal with my inventory. But some larger issues related to my work and art career have also come to mind as a result of Dianne’s illness and death. I’d like to share these because they seem worth contemplating now, while there is still (I hope) much life to live, and because they may resonate with other artists.

I am realizing that as someone who has made a career of art, I have unconsciously assumed that certain standards and goals are part of the package. Such as, successful artists join prestigious galleries, are collected by museums, make a lot of money, are awarded big commissions, are featured in a big glossy art books. Dianne’s death, and her questioning of what’s important, has led me to confront these assumptions—first, to acknowledge that I have them and then to wonder if they serve me well. Striving for fame and fortune (to put it bluntly) may just be a constraint on my happiness and satisfaction with my work. Beyond making a livable income (which I've managed for the past few years) what more do I really need in terms of galleries, exposure, recognition and sales?

I don’t mean to discount personal ambition, mine or anyone else’s. I enjoy challenges, finding new places to exhibit, opportunities for travel, improving my workshops. I’ve always told myself that my goals and desires are realistic and satisfying, that I will take what comes in terms of success but not be unhappy without it, and that I’m not particularly influenced by outside forces. But the truth is that leafing through Art in America, and visiting certain galleries and museums does make me feel I am lacking something, and leaves me a bit uneasy and insecure about my own art career. So I’m trying to sort out which views of Successful Artist come from outside myself, and which are genuinely my own. Outside standards, assimilated without much awareness, can so easily lead to frustration and anxiety and I have to question if they figure in at all in the big picture of what’s important.

I am hoping not only to identify clearly which are my own goals, but also to keep things enjoyable, to realize that achievement beyond making a basic living is an option, not a necessity. Choosing to pursue something I want is better done with optimism, genuine interest and desire to offer something of myself than with a perceived obligation to advance my career or improve my credentials. The line between these can be very thin. I would like to learn to better distinguish one from the other, and to consider the very relaxing and comforting idea that maybe what I already do, and have done, is plenty.

At Dianne's memorial service, several people who had worked with her spoke with deep admiration and respect for her many accomplishments, and contributions she made in her career. But the more personal memories and tributes were far more compelling—when these same colleagues spoke about her traits of honesty and caring, when her brother and sisters and old friends shared favorite memories of her, and when friends of her daughters said she had helped guide and nurture them. To me this was a clear demonstration of what is really important, and I’m hoping to carry this realization forward a little more consciously in my own life.

The painting above was done in the week following Dianne’s death…Somber, 20"x16" ©2012 Rebecca Crowell, oil and mixed media on panel.
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
  spontaneity and control

Some artists who come to my workshops are perplexed when I encourage them to leave their paintings open-ended an in flux until fairly late in the process. They are accustomed to working toward a fairly clear idea from the time they begin a painting, and my process-oriented approach feels a lot like just mucking around to them. Some others are in the opposite corner, finding it difficult to commit to anything beyond making interesting colors and textures.

It's indeed a challenge to find a balance of spontaneity and control in a painting. Both are important--experimenting, allowing things to happen with the paint that will create rich color and texture. Then, with full respect for the playful and spontaneous energy of the work, pushing further for structure, emotional depth and personal meaning. Without the spontaneity, the work can be stilted and constricted--the subconscious potential of the artist's creativity repressed. Without the control and intent, abstraction can become generic, derivative, weak in composition. Perhaps most importantly, it won't satisfy the artist's own deep drive and desire for personal meaning and growth if it lacks the underpinnings of intent and conscious exploration.

For me, integrating these seeming opposites is the work of a lifetime. I've been engaged in this challenge in my studio for years, and it will keep me going from here on. Maybe the reason I'm so intrigued by this balance is because of its implications for dealing with life in the bigger picture. How to stay loose, open to possibilities, playful in the best and most creative sense. Aware that there is no such thing as absolute control. But at the same time, being conscious, aware of intention, direction and meaning.

The painting above, Veil (Gray and Purple) 14"x11", 2012, is part of a series of paintings that explore layers of color and texture with underlying structure.
Monday, September 03, 2012
  quick paintings

I've been making some quick paintings this week, using acrylics, chalk pastel, ink and other drawing materials. My interest in doing these came in part from the 60-second drawing exercise that Lisa Pressman introduced to my class during the week we both taught at Cullowhee Mountain Arts (some of my drawings from this exercise are below, and a description of the exercise here.)

I was also inspired by Steven Aimone's book, Expressive Drawing, which emphasizes an intuitive approach. The rhythm of working that he suggests in several of his exercises is appealing--making spontaneous marks, then stepping back to view them just long enough to feel the next move coming on--and not long enough to ponder or analyze. It is a relaxed and playful dance with the art materials. He suggests reaching a stopping point with the drawing (or painting--it's kind of hard to categorize these as one or the other) by simply going on until there is nothing more that the work seems to need, without much conscious decision-making involved. In this way the artist allows the drawing to capture the energy and forward motion of its emergence, embracing even what may seem to be imperfections or awkwardness. The emphasis is on the process, rather than a finely calibrated finished work, with results that are often delightful, surprising and which may open the way to new ideas and ways of seeing.

I have enjoyed doing these paintings as exercises, though I'm not ready to abandon my more thought-out pieces, with their highly developed surfaces and textures. I find I am thinking of these more as sketches and explorations, and wonder if they will stimulate some new ideas in my "slower" paintings.

I'm also thinking of pursuing this quick, spontaneous approach when I return to Ireland in October for a three week residency at Cill Rialaig in County Kerry. It seems to fit well with my idea of taking a light load of art supplies. It is also in line with a realization I had after my last residency that the work I do on site tends to be only a beginning, and it's fitting that it have the aspect of sketching and experimentation. The more developed work comes along once I am back in my own studio, and delving into sensory memories of my stay.

A couple more of the quick paintings from this week--all are about 10"x8", untitled, on paper with mixed media.



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       Rebecca Crowell