Saturday 31 January 2015

Home Sweet Home

photo collage

So here I am facing a usual problem. It’s morning. I’ve been up since 6 am but I had dogs to care for, e-mail and social media messages to respond to, a lesson to plan and of course, I had to get ready. Now I have maybe two hours ahead before I have to head off to work at noon to run an art technique practice session for a group of ten participants, for which I continue planning as I write. My studio is downstairs, waiting for me to start working on a new series of clay sculptures. Trouble is, when I start making even the most simple, I’ll need more than two hours.
I suppose there are artists who can deal with four or five different responsibilities without losing the rhythm and energy needed for their art-making work. They can return to their studios after teaching or doing office or lab work and just pick up where they last left off, no re-entry, no decompressing or debriefing necessary. I just don’t know any. I have to re-connect with myself as an artist after I’ve been a teacher, a curator, or anything else requiring my non-artist attention. Just about all the artists I know have to as well.
The re-entry methods are varied among artists, but they are usually ritualistic. Head full of images and energy fired up to deal with the demands of life outside the studio, artists need a way back into their ideas. In my case, I have to find ways to calm my over-other-stuff-stimulated brain, to re-direct my nervous energy, to quiet the movie-worthy special effects of immediate memory and to refocus on being an image-maker. Quiet is essential for this.
When I’m finally in my studio, a Zen-style meditative period involves not stillness but movement: I have to re-connect with my studio. For me, it is a place, but it is also a kind of entity, a presence much like water is when one is swims in the ocean or a mountain is when one climbs up to sit atop it, or like music is when one dances. I enter my studio and my first act is a kind of Walkabout, simply appreciating the fact of the space. My next turn is to make sure it is clean, aired out, well lit and that materials and equipment are where they need to be.
Invariably, my next contact is with my tools. Taking them up is like returning to old friends. I touch them one by one - how I especially love the feel of wood on my fingers! - even as I call to mind the gestures they allow me to make by extending my reach or by enhancing the sensitivity, dexterity or strength of my fingers. It’s reassuring to know they are ready to get to work.
Maybe next I’ll go through my sketches and plans. In between series of images there is always a choice to be made. Despite being engaged in other activities. I will often be moved by an idea I have to record or lose. Over time, a collection of these amasses, each waiting for its turn at life. If I’ve not come into the studio with a specific one in mind, a review of my sketches allows me to remember what inspired them and what I intended for them. Choosing one idea to follow is both difficult and exciting because even the best planned has a way of mutating as it evolves.
Next I touch the clay. Having moved into this new studio not so long ago, I’m not equipped anymore to mix my own recipe, so I purchase it in boxes containing two twenty-five pound blocks of it kept moist in plastic. It needs care. The kneading process, called wedging, is both physical warm-up for me and a way to strengthen the clay. There is sensual pleasure in the feel of it, an excitement at the possibilities its malleability suggests. This is true despite the fact that it is extremely difficult to wedge since I broke my wrist and it didn’t get reset properly (the dangers of stepping out of the studio onto the ice coating my world). Oh well. Pain is now just another intimate part of the creation process.
As I prepare the clay, my focus is on visualizing how I will transform this amorphous mass into a variation of the image I’ve imagined or sketched. There is a plot to that story, a setting, a variety of characters in minor roles, transformation, conflict and climax of the action and finally either a heroic or tragic ending. I will successfully support the clay through its many stages from dough to rock-hard sculpture, from a shapeless mass to a work of art, or it will collapse halfway or blow up when i put it in the kiln for its first firing.  Call me a romantic, but luckily, I’m not very good at creating tragedies.
The trick to all this is to have the time to go from re-connecting with the idea, the material the gestures and the tools to finishing the work. That takes a lot longer than two hours.

Friday 16 January 2015

Two on a Tightrope

photo colage

On a recent occasion, I met a friend, a successful business owner, for coffee. His wife is a painter, but she hasn’t painted recently, and this is making them both very uneasy.  True, he said, her art making has been disrupted these past few years by obligations to family and by the demands of both their jobs. She makes good money teaching art but of course, his business must be the priority and he depends on her helping him at need.
However, she’s had an extensive art education, she’s an expert in her technique and imagery, she has produced works of great mastery and beauty in the past, AND she often has plenty of time in the evenings. Yet she doesn’t paint, after supper she sits in her studio by the kitchen, staring at blank canvases but not producing. This makes her both frustrated and depressed, affecting even their otherwise solid relationship.
“What,” he asked,  “can I do to help her?”
Well, back we go to the question of the artistic process. I said:
“You don’t forget how to run a business if you stop doing it for a long period of time. However, getting back to it after a hiatus doesn’t mean that you are the person you were. What makes you successful at it is CONTINUIITY.  You’ve been focused on it for five, six, seven years, you make it your priority and your family’s, you’re on top of developments in your field, you’re right there when an opportunity presents itself or a promising contact is made, you are eager to create new outlets for your business and spend considerable time with your wife’s help creating them, you are ‘in it to win it’ as they say. You don’t just do your work in your’ free’ time in the evenings; chances are you continue it.
“Yet, you expect ‘your wife’ to sustain a serious, professional practice on a part-time, when-I-can-spare-you time. How is that even logical? You are a businessman, you know what it takes to succeed at an endeavour, how can you be surprised that she doesn’t? I suspect you are aware but in denial of the reasons.
“There are only two possible answers to your question.
“One: while you say you value your wife’s talent, while you assert that you support her in her work, while you pressure her to ‘be productive’, you actually believe and communicate that her art is a quaint pastime, something she can easily shelf for awhile and be none the worse for it. That has to change. It will perhaps fly against all your social conditioning to put your wife’s profession on a par with your own, especially given that you believe yours is more profitable, but that is what you must do. You must respect and support her professional needs as she does yours.
“Two: you are unconsciously and inadvertently manipulating her sense of loyalty/responsibility and her insecurity as a businessperson to sabotage her independence. You know her, you know her ability to focus, you are aware that once engaged, her attention to her work is totally dedicated - indeed, her practice demands that level of commitment. The only way you can be sure she is at your side is to be constantly in need of her and to keep her looking to the future by promising she will get to her business ‘soon’ but postponing when that ‘soon’ will become ‘now’. I
“f you don’t want her to reach her limit, and from your question I sense that she is very close to it, that ‘soon’ has to be ‘now’, no more delaying tactics.
“The fact is that without painting, she is at most 50% of who she really is. Deprived of her art, she deprives you of that essential part of herself, the creative and imaginative self, the engaged and optimistic self. The longer she is without it, the more she will lose energy, interest in and enthusiasm for her life. Love will be subsumed by her frustration, anger, resentment, and if she loves you too much to make demands of you, if she’s too empathetic to your needs, if she doesn’t leave you, she will nevertheless withdraw the rest of her from you and your love for her will wither. She will not remain the person you knew. Your husband/wife relationship will go the way of so many others and neither of you will thrive.
"How can you help her? The same way she helps you. You can help her by listening to what she needs and standing with her as she strives and achieves it."

Sunday 11 January 2015

More than the Sum of its Parts

colour pencils

Over the holidays, I visited the home of two graphic artists. In their spare time, they share a studio where they paint. One uses acrylic colours to render representational but imaginary landscapes; another uses acrylic pastes to get textures and overlays ‘skins’ made with acrylic gels, the imagery derived from photographs. They have quite a stack of paintings but as they pulled one after the other out to show me, they said apologetically, “It’s not finished.” It turns out that neither is ever satisfied with his or her work. He never finishes his; the she repeatedly paints over hers.
While both have taken many art technique courses, they work on their art when they have time, sometimes weeks apart. To them, it’s a leisure activity that they nevertheless approach with high expectations: their imagery should work; everything is in place for it to work, and yet they are frustrated and discouraged because it doesn’t. “What can we do to fix this painting?” they asked, showing me one with a background sky in a painterly, abstract style and a foreground tree in a graphic, narrative style. “You need not just to know the words, you need to understand the language.” I said, “And then you need to become fluent in it.”
It is pretty huge. It’s also daunting. People expect art to be easy, accessible, enjoyable, an instantaneous result of ‘inspiration’. It is that, at first, for the child artist encouraged to discover expression, or for the amateur finding the courage and the leisure to ‘just do it’; it is almost that as well for the professional after many years of painstaking work. The hard part is for the people in the middle, those with enough training and knowledge to have expectations but without the work ethic or the dedication to process to find a way to fulfil them.
To the two painters looking at the landscape, I pointed out the disconnection between the elements in the painting, between the subject – the tree - and the background – the sky. Two different ‘styles’ were being represented in the work and they were in conflict: the sky was painted with a flat brush and fluid gestures, the stormy sunset colours blending and separating without hard edges or still spaces. The tree, on the other hand, centred on the canvas, had a fixed trunk and a leaf mass created by the tip of a round brush dabbed onto the surface, each dab a bright, defined, static shape, one colour on or beside another. There was no storm and no sunset anywhere in the tree.
It looked like the artist couldn’t decide whether to ‘express’ the image or ‘describe’ it, two different aims of which the artists were totally unaware (I blame their education).
When questioned, the artist finally decided that the more painterly approach, the one that referred more to abstraction than representation, was the ‘right’ one. The task now was to help the artist re-think the tree, re-visualize it as an expression of a tree rather than its description. “How?” was the perplexed question.
We all ‘know’ a sky is ‘already expressive’, it moves and changes as we watch, it suggests movement and fluidity, and even when captured in a photograph it has no hard edges. How indeed does one express a solid object made up of fixed forms  - trunk, branches, leaves -  as having form but not fixed in place? How even to override the typical or familiar definitions of objects, in this case of ‘tree’, especially when one works from a photograph (usually a badly taken one, or an appropriated one), that denies actual experience, time and movement, to be able to perceive the tree’s growing energy, its dance with the light and the winds?
There is the crux of these artists’ problem. Art is as much about ‘gesture’ as it is about subject. By ‘gesture’ I mean a number of things: the lines of movement and energy in the subject; the physical way the subject inhabits its space, how it is affected by the energies around it, both physically and as ideas (a building, for instance, is a more complex reality than a box sitting in perspective on the ground). As important is the artist’s ‘gesture’: how the paintbrush (or pencil, or sculpting tool, or…) is held, how heavy or light it is, with what movement and force does it touch the canvas, how tight/loose, small/large, focused/sweeping are the artist’s movements as paint is delivered to the canvas; what level of stamina must the artist have to sustain these gestures and for how long; how to maintain focus during the most difficult or challenging moments…
In this ‘gestural’ way, art making is as much a sport as, say, javelin throwing or tennis or hockey, it requires a similar type of training, the re-calibration of body and mind in relation to tools, space and timing to achieve the best result. This takes time, what’s called ‘practice’. Why would a painter sit down at a canvas ‘cold’, expecting to create a perfect image out of thin air? Yet this is what many do; this is what these two painters do.
I gave the artist an assignment to answer the “how?” practically. First, since the tree image was derived from a photograph, I advised her to sit with the photograph but to look at it through a film, perhaps a sheet of Mylar or some wax paper from the kitchen. Then to draw it in graphite maybe ten or fifteen different times with loose gestures, trying to ‘see’ light and shadow through variations of speed and pressure as she worked quickly. Having done this, I advised her to stop, to go do laundry or have supper, but to do these things visualizing what she had seen happening on her paper. (this helps develop a deliberate visual/physical memory of the exercise). After awhile, or the next day, I told her to go do the same but looking at a tree in her yard, now trying to ‘see’ the relationship between the solid parts (trunk, branches, leaves) and the movement (clouds, wind, changes in the light and in the directions of elements). Lastly, she was to do the same two exercises, again with visualizing breaks, with coloured pencils or with pastels (though pastels generate toxic dust and must be used safely). The colours chosen eventually should be matched to the colours she wanted to retain in her painting of the sky/tree.
Having done all this, the artist had to decide to re-paint the tree in the painting with the same gestures used in the practices but from the memory of the results obtained, or to start the painting fresh thinking of sky and tree not as two separate objects in the same place but as related elements of the same experience. That second choice meant the artist had to understand what the experience was (A storm-resistant tree? The beauty and power of nature? A heroic stand against opposing forces? All of the above?) and what aspects of it the painting would express.
The more engaged people become with materials and subjects to make art images, the more they, and those who watch them create, expect from their work. However, without a sustained practice, without research and experimentations, without knowledge that increases with each failure or success, the more difficult it is for the work to live up to expectations. Process in art isn’t just about making a bit of time, clearing a little space, setting up a few materials, choosing a subject and beginning and ending an image. There is much more to it than that.
I saw some dismay in the artists’ faces because I’d not given them a quick fix for the image. I just hope they commit to the process. I look forward to seeing what comes of it. Maybe as a result, he will get to finish his images and she will resolve rather than erase her paintings.

Wednesday 7 January 2015

A Chip on Her Shoulder

Chip on Her Shoulder
(see description below)

            My artistic choices are these: I have long mined my own life experience to extract the thematic raw material that defines it.  I use this self-referential method because I explore ‘the human condition’ as a kind of visual storyteller. I work figuratively and representationally, and I use symbol and metaphor in a literary sense.
My work is born of my strong sense irony; it grows out of my observation of the conflicts, contradictions and absurdities that complicate even the most ordinary lives. Yet, I hope through my technique and my commitment to my media and to my subjects to reflect my deep respect for the fact that despite our limitations of body and mind, we keep working at trying to figure it all out.
Because I think and remember best in images, and because I have a vivid and associative visual imagination, I wish simply to engage in the practice of image making and the conversation about it that began with the first mark made by the first human hand to wield a tool expressively. My brain is large enough to accommodate a huge variety of imagery and ideas at once, albeit sometimes chaotically, which for an artist is a good thing, I’ve discovered. I suspect this is because the inner vision on which I as an artist focus is perhaps more perceptive than the outer. What my mind’s eye (or my third eye) ‘sees’ is not just what my physical eyes see, but is the result of all my senses, plus memory, the intellect and the imagination ‘seeing’ in concert.
Using imaging and creation techniques I learned during my dance, creative writing and theater studies and practices, which subsequently merged in my visual arts practice, I create imagery that blurs the boundary between inner, or subconscious, and outer, or conscious realities. It is also influenced by the many cultures of which I am a product, and the experience of being an immigrant or an outsider many times over. My work has at different times been called ‘magic realism’, ‘psychological narrative’ or ‘conceptual representation’. Whatever else it is, it is clay, pencil, paint and a lot of time in the studio.

Chip on Her Shoulder
Talc body clay, underglazes, glazes
Self portrait with ‘the’ Winged Venus (Winged Victory of Samothrace) from the Louvre collection.

It is my observation that art history is the ever-present companion to a serious, if at times harassed, artistic practice.