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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, 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.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

After a successful and satisfying Oil&Wax Workshop at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, I’ve started settling in for my residency at AIR Serenbe, about an hour outside Atlanta. I am luxuriating in the idea of three weeks of painting, interrupted only by an anticipated day or two in Atlanta and a few community events, such as the talk I gave this morning in the studio for an interfaith group—there were lots of great questions and discussion.

First, a little about Serenbe, a 1,000 acre community located about 45 minutes to the south and west of Atlanta. From the description on the Serenbe website:

Serenbe… is a national model for the future of balanced development in the U.S.— focusing on land preservation, agriculture, energy efficiency, green building, walkability, high density building, arts and culture, and community living for multiple generations. With a projected 70% of future building occurring in the greenfield, Serenbe demonstrates how urban development models can succeed on the edge of a metropolis while preserving a vast majority of the greenspace. Serenbe’s ultimate goal is to demonstrate how development can accommodate the need for housing with minimal impact on nature…

There are quite a few articles online about Serenbe, including coverage by The NY Times, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal. Much of the press speaks about the ecologically conscious building practices and planning, and of the highly acclaimed restaurant fare-- Serenbe was founded by renowned restaurateurs, Steve and Marie Nygren, and excellent locally-grown food (the community includes a 25 acre organic farm) continues to be a highlight of the Serenbe scene.

Though I love a good organic meal, obviously Serenbe’s emphasis on arts and culture is the reason I'm here. AIR Serenbe (a program of The Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture and Environment) invites artists to the community for several weeks, and provides studio space, living arrangements and a stipend for food and travel. Artists are encouraged to spend their time exactly as they see fit—no expectation of a project or agenda, though this is a perfect setting for this kind of focus.

Although I’m sure that some of my work here will reflect my walks in the early spring woods and fields of Serenbe (there are miles of hiking trails) my main project while here is preparing for my August exhibit at the Pratt Museum of Art, Culture and Anthropology in Homer, Alaska. I’m going to save the description of that project for another post, when I have more of the work underway.

For now I can say that the opportunity to work uninterrupted by daily life is a gift I am savoring. AIR Serenbe is unlike other artist residencies I have done in that only one artist comes at a time, and in being here alone I may miss that element of shared creative energy. However, after speaking with the group this morning, I see that there are plenty of Serenbe residents who are engaged in visual art, writing and music and perhaps I will get to know some of them.

In the few days that I’ve been here, I’ve fallen into a pattern of painting, walking and relaxing in this peaceful and lovely setting. The focus on my work seems very pure, with few distractions, and I’m looking forward to a productive and refreshing stay. I am here until April 4th.

Monday, March 04, 2013
  creativity and spirituality, part 2

This is the conclusion to the text of the talk about creativity and spirituality that I posted last week. Sunday was the day of the presentation at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Eau Claire, and it was a delight to deliver it to such a receptive audience. My talk was purposefully ecumenical in tone in order to acknowledge the wide range of beliefs of the audience, and at the same time, as personal and open as I could brig myself to be. If you'd like to listen to me delivering the talk, click here.

Creativity and Spirituality, part 2

When I paint, I am led by intuition, and what I'm seeking is undefined throughout much of the process. Answers or conclusions are elusive during all of the initial and middle stages. I start with a certain range of colors, kinds of marks or a compositional idea, but then I allow each step along the way to influence my next move. There is always a dance between spontaneity and control, and this has wider implications in life, in living wisely. I find my work to be a continuing lesson in flexibility with regards to what to attempt to control and what to allow to unfold as it will.

A number of painting sessions follow my initial moves, during which colors and textures are layered onto the panel with various tools and techniques. The organic aspects of my work are consistent as source material in nature and in the painting processes I employ. There is a continual building up and breaking down of the surface of the work, mirroring natural processes such as accretion and erosion. After complex surfaces are achieved, I begin to recognize a potential conclusion to the work, and the final steps become more clear. A painting for me is finished when there is nothing more I want to add, or take away…the image seems complete, and as if could be no other way. When I am finished with a painting, it always seems that I have made something more than I could have imagined or envisioned, and I am awed by the mystery of this.

This searching and feeling my way through the work, and finally arriving at a conclusion has a parallel in certain difficult challenges of life. So often, the struggle to reach an insight or understanding seems an essential part of the process—there are no short cuts. The frustrations along the way, the need for persistence, and the willingness to keep at something without knowing the final result are similar in both these creative and spiritual searches, as is the sense of resolution and gratitude when a conclusion is eventually reached. And of course, in both life and art, a new problem will quickly present itself, and another journey of understanding will begin. Often the same issues must be worked through over and over until they are consolidated and integrated into understanding.

While my initial ideas are just jumping-off points for the journey that follows, still my process is not as random or unstructured as it may sound. I work within parameters that I've discovered over years of making art, that suit me--the individualized abstract language that I have developed, certain art materials and techniques that define my work as mine. These form a steady base from which I make my explorations.

In terms of spirituality, this base can be compared to the basic core beliefs I've developed over years of reading, questioning, wondering, and talking about spiritual ideas with family and friends. From this base, I take on questions, challenges, new ideas, and life situations. The process in both art and life is similar—what I try to do is follow my thoughts and intuition to where they lead, searching for logic and structure while maintaining an open mind and staying true to my basic principles and beliefs. Perhaps my years of painting have made me a little more patient when making my way through these inevitable mazes that life presents.

In both art and life, I have a sense of trust in this process, that if I stick with it and listen to that "still small voice within" I’ll find an answer. To paint well involves listening to that same inner voice that provides direction and insight in other areas of life. In both cases, I need to resist an urge to control the outcome, and to realize that I have to clear my mind of certain preconceived ideas and negative thoughts in order to receive the clearest understandings. In the end the answer or the painting will often surprise me, and seem to come from somewhere outside of myself.

Trust, then, is for me the most important way in which creativity and spirituality flow together, and is an ongoing challenge to understand and fully embrace. By this I mean, trust in the process; trust that there will eventually be a good outcome, trust that challenges are opportunities to discover what I need to know, trust in a power and presence beyond my own understanding. This trust arises from a core spiritual belief that what is good is the only true reality. Goodness, truth, intelligence, love, and what endures over time are all aspects of spirituality that are central to my work, and to where I find meaning in life, and all relate back to trust.

Since it is about trust, painting for me, then, is essentially a very optimistic and spiritual activity. I believe that growth is inevitable, and that there are no backward steps. Searching, questioning, creating and ultimately trusting in good…these are very deeply satisfying, essential, and spiritual aspects of my work.

I close with two quotes that speak beautifully to trust in the process of searching and discovering.

First, this verse from the Bible, Mathew 7:7, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

And from Ralph Waldo Emerson: Life is a journey, not a destination.


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       Rebecca Crowell