"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.