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.
the influence of place
A few days ago I asked my Facebook friends to suggest topics for me to blog about, and I had enough responses to feed my thoughts here for quite some time. Suggestions ranged over many topics, but quite a few focused on the various places where I've traveled, taught and lived, and how the influence of these locations comes through. Artist Jeff Erickson hit exactly on a current question of mine:
With all of the travelling you have done recently, and painting at both homes, while soaking in the visual landscapes, how do you approach working on a body of work influenced by only one place. You must have visual information overload right now!!
I need to put this question aside for a while,because I'm still working it out. For now I will just say that these days, I'm interested in the unifying and universal aspects of the places I love, rather than seeing my time in them as distinctly different experiences. But I do have general thoughts about the influence of place on my work, ideas that have evolved over many years of artist residencies and other travel to the kind of rugged, wild landscapes that I most respond to.
|A black sand beach, New Zealand|
Cathy Byrne asked how I translate visual inspiration to my work. For me the visual is only one source--my process also involves emotion, thought, and memory. Looking back, I can see that over time, I've gone from a fairly literal and conscious depiction of landscape to working fluidly with what stays with me as an essence--a sort of distilling process. I also work in response to my painting materials and methods so I'm not focused on the end result but more on seeing what evolves.
|Black Beach #1, 10"x10" 2017, oil/cold wax and pigments on panel |
Back in 2008, as the result of a 3-week residency in Spain, I realized that tapping into intuition, emotion and memory were the keys to letting an experience come through me and into my work. I began to let go of the idea that I "should" depict certain characteristic or scenic aspects of a place, and to allow myself to be caught up in anything that spoke to me. There are usually just a few moments in a place that truly feed my ongoing work, and they may be quite ordinary on the surface. I don't know which memories will be significant until I am gone--it's kind of a mysterious process, but it's one that I trust to provide an essence of the experience as a whole. Of course, I also come away with lots of memories that surround and support the core few, and bring variation and depth to the work. But the core memories tap into something deeper--a sense of longing or an emotional connection to a place.
Nancy Natale wondered what I take to my residencies in Ireland and whether I make small pieces that I use as the basis for larger ones when I get home.
I'm lucky at Ballinglen, because the staff there lets me store some supplies there from year to year, so I always have plenty to work with. But in other situations, I do struggle and have never been good at packing lightly. Over time, I'm gradually learning that once I'm away from home, I work with what I have and rarely miss what I've left behind. Yes, scale is generally small--limited to what will fir into my suitcase. As for the role of this smaller work, it is most importantly an aspect of exploring a place, and not necessarily a step leading to larger work.
|small work on paper from residency in Ballycastle, Ireland, ink and gouache|
When I'm on a residency, I consider being out in the landscape as important as the time in my studio. So that means going out to walk alone, explore, take photos (which I use as a way of focusing, not as literal reference), draw, or just to sit quietly someplace. At times I feel a very strong connection to what is around me. There is a sense of play to it all..,my inner 10-year old is very happy to be out wandering around, climbing over gates, picking up stones, looking at clouds.
In the residency studio I often do some quick, small works on paper, using various media after returning from a walk. I feel a similar sense of play as I do when I'm out exploring. I also spend plenty of time on developed work, usually on paper or multimedia artboard. Although the more developed work has more layers and detail, I try to maintain the same open and intuitive attitude as I do with quicker work. My studio time on a residency is when I process and think, absorb my surroundings like a sponge, and then squeeze a good deal of it back out on paper or panel.
When I come home again, I don't usually reference the work I've done while away, or my photos, or anything else. I just aim for a clear mind and see what the residual effects of my experiences have to tell me. But of course, everything I've done is part of the process as a whole, and certain aspects of the smaller works definitely come through. Also, a few times, I have deliberately worked on a large scale based on ideas that came out in some pivotal smaller work.
|n A Quiet Light, each 24x20", painted at Ballinglen Arts Foundation, Ballycastle, CO Mayo, Ireland 2017|
|Fissures #3, 48x36", painted with memories of Irish stones..and stones everywhere|
And finally, a question from Kai Harper Leah: "What is it like painting in NM vs. the other places you have been teaching lately?"
Since I am now living half of each year in New Mexico, I can see that my process is a bit different. I'm surrounded by the landscape for long stretches, rather than accessing it through memory. That distillation process is not much in play. I noticed that this spring I was more involved with memories of New Zealand, where I spent the month of February, than with what I was seeing around me. I wonder if in the end, the glorious NM landscape-- as much as I love it-- will have less impact than those places I visit more briefly. On the other hand, the more time I spend there, the more nuances of color, texture and shape I see. Maybe in the end the influence of New Mexico will be a subtle one. Or maybe it will come through more strongly during my summers in Wisconsin. An open question, so far!
|Near Dixon, NM|
Thanks again to my Facebook friends for these thought-provoking questions and comments. I will be taking on a few others in future posts, and welcome the thoughts of other readers, as well.
A week ago, it finally arrived--my copy of Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations, co-authored by myself and Jerry McLaughlin. I've been waiting to hold this book in my hands for over two years, since the day Jerry convinced me to undertake the project and it began to take form in our shared vision. I tore off the packaging, stared at the cover, felt the book's weight and heft, and began flipping through. It was beautiful and--at long last--an actual book. I felt a rush of emotion and an urge to celebrate, but I was by myself on an otherwise ordinary Monday afternoon. A couple of happy/excited/relieved texts with Jerry sufficed, and I settled down for a more thorough look.
The pages seemed at once familiar and strange. Countless viewings on the computer screen, days of writing and editing, meetings with Jerry to go over photos and layout decisions, and line-by-line proofreading had pretty much seared most of them into my memory. Yet seeing the actual printed pages brought the whole project from an idea into a new and unfamiliar reality. After living for so long only as computer files, the book now had a physical presence, a substance. For the first time, I could imagine encountering it in a fresh way, as someone else would...picking it up in a store or a friend's studio, or opening the package that had arrived in the mail. If I were seeing it for the first time, I believe I'd be impressed.
Knowing everything that goes into a book like this is a burden and privilege reserved for its authors. In our case, my own share of the work was considerably less than Jerry's, who not only instigated the project but was its prime mover all along. While we consulted often about various aspects of the book, he took on the heaviest load of overall design, layout, curating, communicating with all the artists in the book, and a myriad of other publishing and distribution details. Fortunately, we also received invaluable help throughout the process from our editor (Kristy Conlin) and our graphic designer (Haroula Kontorousi.) And we remain ever grateful for the ongoing support of our families and friends, and of the cold wax community at large.
Although my own workload during the past two years has been comparatively light, it still felt to me at times overwhelming, cumbersome, and nerve-wracking. The writing itself was generally an interesting and creative process, but there was so much more involved. For example, the text we started out with was usually too long or not well enough organized, and needed to be followed by re-writing, editing and of course, proofreading. We had to work out proper chapter titles, chapter intros, headings and subheadings, the placement of artwork, where and how to insert the special focus sections, the content of various charts and lists, the final wording and design of the covers (generously provided by Stephanie Dalton) and flaps. We spent two twelve hour days just working on the photos that illustrate the sections on techniques--planning images that would best show the process, setting up the shots, and finally, taking the photos. Once Jerry had configured the layout of each chapter, we'd usually have further revisions in order to make everything flow correctly or fit into the space, or the number of pages available. In the final months before sending to the printer, we did a lot of fine-tuning and proofreading, It was a challenge then to balance perfectionism and moving the project along, but it was important to focus on the very best result possible.
Throughout the process we worked mostly in our separate locations, with a constant flow of emails and PDFs back and forth. A few times, we met at my place in Wisconsin or at Jerry's in California. Near the end when we were ready for a line-by-line proofreading of the entire manuscript, Jerry traveled to Ballycastle, Ireland where I was on residency. These meetings, few and far between, were always times of intensive work. Once, in Oakland, we worked almost continuously on Chapter 6 from 8am until 1am the following morning. The photo below of Jerry and myself in Ireland was taken on one of only two short breaks over three days. I guess we couldn't believe we were free for an hour!
The ongoing demands of the process often meant working late into evenings in order to also make time for painting, and dealing with art and workshop business. (Amazingly, Jerry did his part while maintaining his medical practice as well as painting and teaching.)
But in spite of the off and on frustrations, I never regretted becoming involved in the project. All along, I had the strong sense that this was an important undertaking. And I have highly valued my collaboration with Jerry, which continues to be enriching and dynamic.
Once he asked me what the book meant to me. It took me a moment to answer, to step back and gain a little perspective. But the answer was clear. Although I have been teaching and writing my blog for years, and making a few notes in sketchbooks, I'd never before tried to pull together the various threads of 40 years of experience and weave them into one coherent form. In doing so, this book became for me a kind of closure. I'm very gratified to have so much of what I've learned, taught, written and thought about over the years complied in one place and organized in such a way that others can learn from it.
|Notes from 2007... I had started getting questions from other artists about cold wax and had the idea that I should record something about the techniques I'd been working out in my studio. This was written about six years after I first started using cold wax, and a few years before I started teaching workshops.)|
Of course, our new book is much more just my own contributions, and Jerry's--it ranges into the words and work of the many other artists who participated. I love the depth that this brings to the overall content, and I've learned from the other artists. My own use of cold wax medium has always been fairly straight forward--mixing it with paint, and sometimes adding sand, pigments or powders. But seeing the wide range of approaches by artists in the book has had an effect on me. In terms of technique, I'm now more involved in using washes, pours, and pigment sticks. In recent paintings, I've also been exploring a slightly collage-like attitude--not literal collage, but the idea of sectioning parts of the painting with underlying geometry into areas of different but related passages. Certain collage and experimental artists featured in the book intrigued me and I think had some subtle influence.
|Coromandel 20"x16" oil/cold wax/pigment on panel. |
Now, as I leaf again through the book, I wonder what lies ahead in the coming months. As partners at Squeegee Press, Jerry and I are already planning new projects and events. Marketing and wider distribution challenges await us--we'd love to see our book embraced by workshop instructors, public libraries, and the academic community. The support from the community of cold wax artists has been strong from the beginning and continues to grow.
In the immediate future, the books will be available on Shopify in mid-May, and if you like, you can PRE-ORDER your copy now using this link. If you ordered a copy during our crowd-funding campaign last summer, your book will be on its way as soon after they arrive as we can make it happen (the predicted date of the shipment arrival is April 7th, but that is by boat from China, so I suppose it is not absolute.) I'll be in the Bay Area the week they arrive to help with signing, and I'm sure Jerry and I will do a little celebrating too! We hope that if you choose to own our book, it will a valued resource and a delight for years to come.
Since my last post, I’ve been to New Zealand for three
weeks, teaching two workshops, and exploring many coastal and inland areas around
Auckland with my Squeegee Press partner, Jerry McLaughlin, and Norma Hendrix of
Cullowhee Mountain Arts. As I write this, part of me is still walking a black beach;
these sublime expanses of volcanic sand were my favorite places of all that we experienced.
There was so much beauty everywhere, though--so many
spectacular places and interesting sights, such good camaraderie and excellent workshop
sessions--that is hard to re-enter ordinary life (even though I when I returned,
it was to our place in New Mexico, which is its own kind of paradise.) The
first night I was back, I dreamed about paintings all night. These were compelling
abstract images that I felt directed to paint. At one point I woke up and
thought of looking for my sketchbook, which was someplace in the jumble of my
unpacked luggage. But I told myself I would remember the images, and fell back
asleep. In the morning, the more specific ideas and images were gone. I was
left only with an impression of light, misty atmosphere, oddly shaped islands,
and dark sand. At first I was disappointed. But then I recognized the
impressions that I had retained. This was how it was on Karekare, one of the
most beautiful black sand beaches that we visited. The dreams had distilled for
me a memory that seems now to me the essence of the trip as a whole.
This was a gift, because my work is about expressing
essence. In the midst of travel, identifying what is most meaningful to me--and
will ultimately influence my work--is usually not clear; sensory impressions,
thoughts and feelings crowd together, especially when there is little solitude
or down time. In New Zealand, the days were full and sometimes exhausting, and
I never took the time to write notes or draw, or do anything other than a few
quick paintings during the workshops to process the experience. But every time
we went exploring, I was taking it all in. I felt very present and observant,
and focused in the way that travel opens the eyes.
I did take a lot of photos. For me, photography is another
aspect of being present, an exercise in seeing and appreciating the reality of
the moment. I never directly reference photos in the studio, but find that
there is an alignment between what I paint and what I choose to photograph.
When I paint, it is memory that serves me best. And of the
many memories the New Zealand trip, there will be only a few that impact my
work. Until I am alone in my studio, back home after such a trip, I don’t know
what these will be, or in what ways they will be expressed. The process of
filtering out these essential memories is mysterious and intriguing to me. I
often feel that there is symbolic or archetypal meaning in what comes through, yet
there is no need to understand or explain. There are simply compelling visual ideas
|Karekare, 24x36", oil, sand, cold wax on panel|
For the past few days I’ve been in my little New Mexico studio,
a bit jet-lagged but impatient to resume work. The remaining fragments of my
painting dreams are an intriguing and elusive guide as I feel my way into new pieces.
The fact that my dreaming brain was so active in this way makes me believe that
the process of finding essence is working at a deep level, and that is
exciting. On the other hand, I try to avoid expectations about what will evolve
in the studio—my basic approach is to give myself over to intuitive moves, while
making choices that build strong work. While I can be guided by a particular
mood or visual idea, for the most part I don’t work with specific goals in mind.
My night of painting dreams left me with a sense of sweet mystery and beautiful
possibility, but I need to trust in my own way of working to find my way there.
New Mexico reflections
I’ve been in
New Mexico for five weeks now, as work progresses on the old adobe building
that will be our winter home. We’re
fortunate to have some very skilled and dedicated workers, all local guys, who
not only roof, patch up adobe and plaster, pour concrete, and build bancos, but
also offer helpful suggestions about how to approach some of the unique aspects
of adobe remodeling. Watching their work makes me truly appreciate the
connection between adobe buildings and the land, and the long traditions
involved in making these earth homes beautiful and practical.
goes on around me, my days are mostly centered around painting, walking,
staring at rocks and sunsets, meeting new people, and generally enjoying this
unique environment. It’s all still so new and amazing to me that I have a lot
of moments that strike me as unreal. Driving up the spectacular Rio Grande
gorge on my way to buy groceries in Taos, it’s hard to believe that I’m on a routine errand. Picking my way
up the rocky terrain behind our house, with its vast views on all sides, I try
to take in that this is home for at least part of the year.
incredibly grateful to be here and for me, the best way to express this is
through my work. I’ve been painting some fairly large panels (36”x48”) as well
as smaller works on panel and paper. I continue to see the effects of this
arid, angular and textural environment in my work. In some ways, this feels
fresh and new, and in other ways there is a continuation of ideas that began
back in Ireland in the fall--such as including more distinctive shapes and
higher contrast. That seems right to me, that form can shift to accommodate new
input yet retain the threads of ideas that are worth exploring.
|Azure, 36x48" oil/coldwax/pigments on panel|
studio, one of two outbuildings on the property, is tiny and closed-in compared
to the one in Wisconsin—I have about 12 feet each way of usable floor space,
and just one small, unglazed window, which I need to keep covered on chillier
days. I have several strong, LED lights
and spotlights, so the lighting is OK—it’s more that the lack of windows gives
it the feeling of being in a cave! When my window is covered, the day can go
from light to dark without me ever realizing it. But on sunny, warm winter days
though (such a treat to a Wisconsinite) I can open my front door to let in
light and air.
such a small space is something of a challenge. But I am adapting. I brought only minimal supplies from
Wisconsin, so there’s not much clutter, and the bancos (built-in low shelves or
seats that reinforce the structure) provide a flat surface against three walls
for storage and work space. Shortly after I got here, I answered an ad in the
local newsletter from someone selling studio supplies, and acquired a wonderful
adjustable drawing table, two floor lights, and a few other useful items.
I have to
smile a bit when I think of the chapter about setting up a studio in our
upcoming book (Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations, with
Jerry McLaughlin.) A lot of our advice about working surfaces and storage would
not apply at all in my current space! But we also make the point that a dedicated
artist can work anywhere, and I seem to be testing that theory at the moment.
In the future, I hope that something larger and airier can be built on our
property here. But in the meantime, what I have here is more than fine.
As I write
this, I am in the midst of packing and organizing to leave tomorrow for three
weeks. It seems odd to be uprooting
myself from this place in which I’m settling in and enjoying so thoroughly. But
I’m also very excited about the next phase—New Zealand! I’ll be teaching two workshop sessions at
Takapuna Art Supply in Auckland, assisted by my friend and co-author Jerry
McLaughlin. I’ll also be enjoying the company of another dear friend, Norma
Hendrix, who is the director of the Cullowhee Mountain Arts program. We’ll all have some time for travel and
relaxing together, as well as teaching. I look forward very much to this time
of exploring the area, working with students both new and from the past, and
experiencing a new culture.
To end on a
reflective note, I have debated with myself about whether to post these good
things in my life, at a time when many of us are coping with daily news of drastic
changes in our country. I know that the
blessings in my own life make it relatively easy for me to hold on to joy,
optimism and gratitude. Yet I also believe that Goodness is a universal and
unifying principle. As many others have said recently, holding onto the beauty
and positive aspects of life is what keeps us moving forward. I hope that we can all continue to share and
appreciate what is happy, abundant and joyful in our lives.
I’ve been at our new winter home in New Mexico for several
weeks now, and the beauty of this place, the friendliness of this small community,
the cultural opportunities and connections with other artists are all amazing and
gratifying. I’ve been painting a lot and taking long walks, reading, and
writing. In spite of the distractions of the remodeling the old adobe here, and
the need to figure out aspects of daily life in a new place, there are lots of
quiet, contemplative moments that ground me in this new reality.
The angular forms and rocky textures of the dramatic
landscape here are entering my work, and recent snowfall suggested stark value
contrasts. I’ve been working mostly on paper, as I await delivery of some
I’ve started a small personal research project on the side—looking
closer at the time of my life (in the late 90s and early 2000s) when I made the
transition to abstraction in my work. I remember so little of this, and wonder
if understanding it better would be helpful, not only or my own reasons but
because I’m sometimes called upon to talk about my work chronologically, and
this period represents a major shift. Also, toward the end of this time, in
late 2001 or early 2002, I first started using cold wax medium. I know that for
years I regarded it simply as a painting medium and not much more, though I was
no doubt figuring out some of its unique properties from the beginning.
For this project, I’ve brought to New Mexico some of my old writings
and journals. (I wish I’d also brought sketchbooks from the time; they may have
been where I wrote about cold wax, if I did at all.) I decided to just dig into these writings with
no real plan. This morning I began with a journal that I wrote from August of 2002
through the June 2003. Interesting that the first one I picked up covers a
significant time in terms of finding my voice in abstraction.
Early in the journal I mention a friend’s remark that my previous
focus on realistic landscape seemed to have been a search for meaningful
content. He said that “my challenge now was to take the substance of that work into
new territory.” I found this insight helpful, a connecting thread to my earlier
work. It helped me to clarify that my intention was to express the essence of
landscape outside of a traditional landscape format. I had, at that point, done
some landscape work that edged into abstraction by eliminating the horizon line,
but felt I wanted to be less literal.
The following spring, I wrote a rather impassioned defense
of abstraction after a discussion with a realist painter: “In abstraction you
put yourself more on the line, because many people will think your work has no
meaning. I think it is harder, more conceptual, and more personal…I will
probably always have more admiration and appreciation for good abstraction than
for good realism.” In retrospect (since nowadays I am not so biased) I can see
that I was staking out my new territory and finding it a bit risky. I also had
a rather polarized view of the differences between abstraction and realism, not
seeing the crossover qualities or possibilities. For example, I was not sure at
the time that “real” abstraction could refer to landscape or other aspects of
the visual world.
An entry near the end of the journal, from June 2003, connects
spirituality with abstraction, the idea of keeping open a clear channel and not
interfering with negative or ego-centered thoughts. I noted that this gave me a
sense of power and of “a force beyond my own conscious direction.” This was a
very liberating insight, written after making my first large-scale abstract
painting, a grid of textural color fields called 25 Views of Landscape. I can
now see that this piece was a milestone for me, a synthesizing of various ideas
about abstracting from landscape that had been brewing, yet very intuitively
realized. At the time, I simply felt relieved-- happy with my work for the
first time in a year or more.
This particular year-long journal, though, is dominated not
by notes on process and studio practice, but by thoughts and experiences that
are rather painful now to read. Although it the journal ends well, on the above
note, it was a time of set-backs in my work and art career along with other
more personal challenges. I share some of these in hopes that they will reassure
others going through similar struggles.
back, I’m very grateful for all the positive changes that came afterward, that unfolded
in their own time. But in the midst of challenging situations, it’s impossible to
know what positive changes we may already have set in motion through our hard
work and focus.
The summer of 2002, I wrote about a solo exhibit in Minneapolis
in which nothing sold, and about a special preview meant to showcase my work
for architects and designers, during which there was much more interest in the wine
and cheese than in my work. The lonely, devastated feeling of standing by myself
in the main gallery while the party went on by the refreshment table in the
next room haunted me for a long time. (Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t try
to take charge of the situation, go over to the table and mingle, but I was
pretty insecure in those days.) I wrote depressingly in August of 2002: “When I look ahead I see nothing uplifting…my
art career, which seemed a while ago to be on an upward climb and full of
promise, now is dead. Those good years (before 2001) now seem like a fluke. Everything
I gained then has been lost.”
My concern with sales was not unfounded-- I had sold very
little that year to date. The economy was bad, following 9/11, and although I
knew this was a widespread situation I felt anxious and envious over other
artists’ sales. That summer, I had been working on one large painting for 6
months without being able to resolve it. I described it as a “monster in the
room,” after I had studio visitors who ignored it completely. I felt stalled, blocked,
and I had to push myself to work at all. The abstract voice I longed to
discover was still elusive in the early part of the journal. I was in
transition in my work toward something really good, but a transition can feel a
lot like a dead end when you ae in its midst.
In my personal life at the time, my sons were young teenagers.
While I wrote a lot about how much I enjoyed and appreciated them, parenthood was
also at times draining and time-consuming. My aging mother was experiencing an early
stage of dementia and increasing anxiety, and depended me for emotional and
practical support. I was going through some health issues of mine own that
seemed to have no resolution. I’ll spare you the details, but it’s clear to me
now how overwhelmed I was—so many people’s needs to meet besides my own, while
feeling depressed about my work and career.
Thankfully, there were also positive and insightful passages
in my writing. I wrote that my challenging situation made me look inward for
the intrinsic rewards of painting, rather than outward for financial success or
recognition. “My intuitive sense is that for now, my focus needs to be on the
work, and letting some calm trust in the business outcome operate without
giving the topic too much of my attention. I have to steer clear of a sense of
personal failure…if I look ahead and see ‘no success’ I’m thinking about the
wrong stuff… I need to think only about the paintings themselves. I do feel I
am on the verge of some breakthrough, coming closer all the time, finding new
aspects of abstract language. There is some elusive image in my head, hovering
almost like a mirage that keeps me going.”
Parts of this still ring true for me, in spite of the
successes I’ve enjoyed in my art career. I’m glad that I no longer feel threatened
by a fear of failure, but I can still fall into the trap of leaning too much on
extrinsic rewards such as sales and recognition. As artists we have so many lessons
to learn, and even when we think we have something figured out, back it comes
in some new guise. But with each round of confronting our issues, I believe we do
make permanent gains.
|untitled, new in my NM studio; 36x48" oil/cold wax on panel|
It strikes me in all
of this how connected are our lives and our art. Just the one journal I’ve read
contains a personal art journey with far more twists and turns than I
remembered. I plan to keep reading and contemplating, and if other insights
emerge, I’ll share. So much of what we struggle with as artists is universal,
and we all have stories that in sharing, can offer solace or encouragement to
|works on paper from Ballinglen|
Last week I was looking over what I brought back from my residency at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ireland--some small works on paper, a few more developed paintings, some sketches and notes, website addresses of artists and books to check out, a book of poetry and some drawing materials I had been given. In that moment, surrounded by ideas, plans, materials, and resources, I was struck, as I have often been in the past, by the idea that art-making is basically research. We conduct this research throughout our lives, compelled to keep learning and growing. Many of us deal with making our livings as artists, and all that entails. But what drives us really comes straight from the heart, a pure search for knowledge, understanding, and a voice to express our deepest selves. The search itself is a creative act as we pull from many sources, integrating fresh information with what we've already learned.
Like researchers in other fields,we gain insights and make advancements, refine our approaches, and contribute to collective knowledge and understanding. But to do all of this means that we need time to experiment, test and develop ideas, and to simply mess around in the studio. We also need to engage in thoughtful consideration, using our critical skills. There is no way to skip over this huge investment of time and energy and to move directly to an end result that is in any way original or authentic.
Although it's not always an easy perspective to maintain, I find that thinking of painting as research is a liberating idea. What's needed is an easy-going patience with the process, and the optimism to regard difficulties as learning experiences. The focus is not on the end result, but instead on what is intrinsically interesting within the process itself--what is being learned, explored, and uncovered. There are also times to step back, to evaluate, analyze. But I try to keep myself in a curious, open-ended "what if?" mode rather than trying to push to a particular finish line.
This attitude is something I try to convey in my introductory cold wax workshops, but I find it is often at odds with people's expectations. In the time-span of an introductory workshop, my goals are to demo a range techniques, check in to make sure they're understood, discuss possible applications in terms of each persons work, and to present information about visual language, abstraction and other topics that will be useful going forward. In other words, I provide a lot of information and materials for research, but the real work must be done on one's own, over time.
I often encounter students, though, who figure they will learn the techniques quickly, then move on to making excellent paintings all within a few days. Using the research analogy, this is like expecting to know the focus of your study immediately, when first exposed to a topic. Artists who are already accomplished in another medium seem especially prone to having high expectations of accomplishment. It's understandable of course--they have things to say and the medium is not cooperating! But when you are first using new materials, it's rare to be able to express yourself in your usual ways, and thinking this will happen can result in a lot of frustration. The successful paintings that do happen in a workshop are often done by those who give themselves over to the process without expectations--or who, at some point, release their expectations. Most people do relax, loosen up, and enjoy the journey's beginning once they accept that a workshop provides only the first steps. The true pleasures of research--the deep engagement, satisfaction, and surprises, lie ahead.
student work space, Ballinglen
All my best to my readers for 2017...here's hoping your own studio research will keep you growing and learning in the most satisfying ways!
what I take home
After six weeks in Ireland, I'm beginning to pack up and get ready for my flight home next week, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. When I come here, I stay long enough to sink into the experience, to feel a part of life here, to find my rhythm of work and social life and solitude.
A lot happens in a month and a half. I've had several visitors, my studio has filled with work large and small, I've taught two week-long workshops, taken many walks, had wonderful conversations with other artists, and with various local people, and have revisited all of my favorite rocky and rugged places along the North Mayo coast. It is my life, for a time, day to day, ordinary and extraordinary all at the same time.
When I pack my suitcase to go home, I never really know what I'm taking back with me. Clothes, paintings, bits of memorabilia, of course. But what has imprinted itself into my sensibilities, what is lodged in my brain firmly enough to persist in my future work? I don't really know until I get home and have had some time for the experience to sink in, and for the essence to come through. Each time I've come, I've been affected by a different aspect of the landscape--weather, rocks and cliffs, hedgerows, the bog. In my work this year, I've referenced all of those, as well as moving water and the interior of an old church. I usually respond to many aspects of the environment when I am in a place, and then sift through it in the studio at home to discover what was most significant.
A few photos from my walks:
I know that my work is about more than the visual, though. It is about a longing for connection, an engagement of my soul, spiritual nourishment. The specific sources of ideas are those that resonate deeply-- channels into deeper meaning. I find that this place in Ireland is very rich with these sources, and that they grow and change and become more complex over time.
A few of my paintings from my time at Ballinglen:
Abandoned, 14"x11" oil/cold wax on paper
untitled, 8"x11" oil/cold wax on paper