Friday 9 December 2016

Showing Emotion

Head Spaces: Bonzai
Clay, glazes
Claudine Ascher

I had dolls as a child. Of course I played with them, mostly by taking them on imaginary journeys, introducing them to magical and monstrous creatures of all kinds and telling them all kinds of stories. I loved to play with them this way, but always there was a part of me that felt sorry for them. See, their faces were blank no matter what, their eyes forever frozen in their zoned-out stare. I knew they were ‘my’ dolls, but

No matter what the adventure, no matter what funny or serious thing they were told, my dolls’ expressions never changed. They could show no awareness of the world we shared, nor contribute anything to it that I didn’t. I knew instinctively that in truth, they were secret agents: a bride doll, a baby doll, a red-lipped doll with feminine clothing, each forever an expression of her or his creator’s intent (this was pre- gender-neutral wording, though the dolls, genital neutral, were seemingly way ahead of their time).

Looking at art as my aesthetic sense awakened, I saw this same kind of facial neutrality in many of the represented people, at least in those that were given defined features. I looked at faces in painting and sculpture that were for the most part at rest, the people expressed emotion more through the attitude of their heads and the direction of their gaze than through the changes in their facial musculature. Women especially were mostly represented as if what they felt did not (could not) mar their  well-rendered physiognomy in any way. They were meant to be not individuals but representations of humanity, and facial expressions are too expressive of a specific personality.

It’s since I became a figurative artist myself, and worked extensively with models and created both two and tree-dimensional works that I understood something more about expression-neutral faces in art. 1) Models can’t hold smiles or frowns or feel strong, face-altering emotions during extended poses. 2) By their nature, artists working from photographs can lose the feeling of immediacy and spontaneity of the face-altering emotion; 3) Expressions are very difficult to render, even living, real gazes are difficult to  capture in works that aim to express ideas or concepts; better neutral than uncontrollably grotesque, comical or comic-book in ‘serious’ art; 4) representing a face mid-emotion often individualizes the subject and runs the risk of fixing the action in a specific moment rather than representing it as eternal.

So, to a figurative artist, the challenge becomes to be able to express emotion through facial expression without losing the feeling of a person in a moment while simultaneously expressing a universal human state.

Friday 28 October 2016

Nobel's Dylan Dilemma

Blowing in the Wind
colour pencil on Stonehenge
30” x 44”
C. Ascher

It’s the big buzz these days: Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Imagine that! Speculation and controversy have of course resulted - imagine, popular culture getting the nod from an exclusive organization often accused of being elitist (the divide between ‘the great’ and ‘the common’ has never been wider, with the latter edging the former back by sheer numbers, though in either case, it’s money that keeps the tug-of-war going).

Now, everyone’s on about Bob Dylan’s refusal to acknowledge the Nobel prize. It doesn’t surprise me. He is an artist, not ‘a performer’ in the do-what-everyone-expects sense of that word.. There has always been a huge dilemma for artists created by 1) the conflict between art for its own sake and commerce; 2) the very tricky relationship between personal truth and mass appeal; 3) peer recognition when it is re and mis-directed into competition and one-upmanship in endless awards ceremonies’; 4) the appropriation of celebrity and fame by those with political agendas or the desire to associate themselves with (buy?) success or credibility.

The Beatles stopped touring when they were overwhelmed by fan adulation, having come to a place as creators when they were more interested in music as a form of research and in pushing their own boundaries than becoming more and more peoples’ fantasies. They wanted to control their work, not be controlled in their work.

Artist can begin their careers wanting recognition and praise, they may be competitive with others of their art, but these are more about confirming that what they are creating is bigger than themselves. Once that is established, they turn their attention more and more to growing, evolving and mastering their vision. They have to, or they become little more than manufacturers, repeating formulas for mass consumption. This is what makes great artists greater, not awards that in the end mean nothing if they come with strings - and the Nobel comes with huge strings, not least of which to force artists who don’t need that kind of validation into ethical dilemmas relative to politics and money.

Dylan doesn’t need to explain his actions. Let people interpret them as they are free to interpret his lyrics. That’s what poetry is about isn’t it? That’s what art is about. If the Nobel people don’t get that then what’s the point of their awards?

Sunday 21 August 2016

New Realities

If They Can Do It
clay, underglazes, glazes
approx 14” circumference
C. Ascher

I have returned to the clay studio after nearly seven and some months off from a shoulder break. My right arm still doesn’t work well, but I can’t wait any longer. iI’s almost the end of August, I have an exhibition planned for January and clay takes time.

All I’ve been able to do over the past months is draw because while I’m ambidextrous when I sculpt, I do 2D work with my left hand. I’ve done some 190  drawings based on a kind of interpretative portraiture. Unable to work from models as is my usual, I’ve used pictures  from all my human and animal family and friend photograph albums as source material. 

Surprisingly, I really have enjoyed focusing in this way. The intense examination of photographs I’ve only ever looked at casually or nostalgically (practicing what I suggested in a previous blog entry) has given me some new insights about relationships, influences, attitudes and social conditioning. It was a forced exercise but turned out to be very valuable for my creative process.

The trick has been to return to three-dimensional thinking after so long with two dimensions. It’s a completely different brain that conceives full, weighted forms than the one that works from flat shapes and the illusion  of space and of volume. To draw ‘from life’, I have to transport forms that have depth, mass and weight to one physical plane with two dimensions, width and ‘height’, both in relation to the scale of the flat surface on which I’m working. 

Sculpture involves weight, mass, balance, volume, form, structure, and because the medium I work with is clay, it also involves chemistry, engineering and architecture. It also requires two equally working arms. Alas, my right arm is now inexplicably a good 1,5 inches shorter than my left - how the heck did that happen? -  the shoulder cracks like crazy, it hurts, and the muscles are just beginning to reform.  It seems that in the short term, I’m to be much more left handed than I’ve ever been in the past.T he new working reality. All I can do is adapt and hope things will go back to normal.

I approach my preparation to sculpt in the same manner that I approached training in competitive sport. I believe that art making is as much dependent on stamina, strength, focus and control, all art making is but especially sculpture, as synchronized swimming or high-board diving (my sports). And I find it as physically engaging as I did dance. Once the initial inspiration hits, the process of realizing the image in real time/space with a physical medium for presentation or exhibition is as rigorous as training for a competition or performance.

I just hope my joints are still up to the challenge.

Saturday 20 August 2016

The Artist Re-Natured

colour pencil on paper
C. Ascher

I had this faith, see. As a kid, I believed that artists were people with exceptional courage, creativity, passion, compassion and the kind of focus nature has, a focus fuelled by purpose. This is because they had vision that sees behind, beneath and beyond even the things other people dismiss as common, useless or base.
To my child’s eye, artists managed to see together and at once what others kept separate, things like ‘religion’, ‘psychology’, ‘philosophy’ and ’politics’, even when outside forces worked to silence or control them. I thought this is what gave them what people called talent’, what created their ‘fame’, this and their intimate and enviable relationship with the physical and metaphysical worlds through their media. 
I believed artists brought people together by inviting them through their works into a world of personal but inspirational emotions, impressions, expressions, speculations, ideas, understandings, conceptualizations, and imaginings. They encouraged and invited reactions in all who viewed their imagery, regardless of any consideration other than a shared human existence.
This faith is what led me to want to be like them and want to be with and support people like them, modest as our efforts might be by comparison. So I became an artist, an art educator, a gallery curator and an arts administrator. For well over 35 years I have served in these capacities, and in that time I have come in contact with hundreds of other artists. 
During that time, I have also come in contact with municipal politicians, municipal employees, educators, citizens with an interest in the arts, members of the general community, government bodies, granting agencies, other curators, dealers, buyers, collectors, children and adult students of art, in other words, with the entire population of personalities who in one way or another are involved in art and culture.
After all these contacts, I now understand that artists are people with the POTENTIAL to be exceptionally courageous, passionate and focused. Alas, I came to see that in fact, while artists I’ve met intend to BE artists, most lack two of the basic traits I expected to find in them: they are neither courageous nor truly aware. Most focus on self-promotion and on gaining a foothold in the ‘art millieu’ but stand by silently as they and their kind are sabotaged in all aspects of their lives. Well, no artists are not silent. I hear them complain bitterly about their lot without seeing them stand up and do the work required to change it. 
I don’t think an artist’s purpose should be simply to make art, gain approval and make money. An artist’s purpose should also be to protect and defend Art against all its detractors, those in governments especially who cut, cut and withhold funding to anything related to art and culture while making great gains from artists’  work both socially and economically. They keep artists poor, needy, beholden and afraid to make any waves whatsoever for fear of more cuts. They convince the public that they save money for more important things even as they rob huge sections of said public of their culture. 
My faith in artists hasn’t changed. However, I now see that many who make art or who call themselves artists are also beaten down and resigned to their lot. They accept the decisions made for and about them by others as if they’re children who need to be disciplined, and as a result their passion has become so internalized that it is for all intents silent and powerless. They don’t fight for what is their due and they live by what they are told, not least of which that to be respected they must be productive loners hidden in their studios and grateful for any attention at all.

My purpose outside my studio has become to help artists see the lie in that and find their courage. They can start immediately. They can develop relationships with local governments and communities to which they have direct access and become involved in creating their own opportunities as involved citizens who stand firmly behind the arts. It is their right.

Sunday 24 July 2016

Getting Real

The Professor
low-fire clay
C. Ascher

Here we go again. Every year it’s the same story.

It’s certainly a proud moment when a student completes an assigned work or an amateur puts the finishing touches on a copy or borrowed composition. A teacher or, in my case, a curator, can be open to showcasing this pride to a wider audience in a show-and-tell or a gallery display as encouragement, provided the source material, whether a teacher who assigned or corrected the work or its creator, is identified. 

However, it is a difficult line to walk between encouraging people’s artistic creativity and feeding the illusions they develop with the completion of a few artworks, especially paintings. Putting amateur art objects out for public view has a terrible side effect: it helps foster the illusion that their creators are now ‘artists’. That is wonderful when their reaction is to hunker down and get serious with their artistic practice. Unfortunately, too often, all it does is lead them to expect to sell the work and churn out more of the same, except instead of relying on teachers they fish the internet for images and ideas.

In an episode of the Original Star Trek series, a female character announces to imprisoned Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock that she has composed a sonnet. When she recites it for their edification, Spock, surprised, points out that it’s a Shakespeare sonnet, written centuries before. The indignant woman responds, to paraphrase, “That didn’t stop me from re-writing it yesterday”. Of all the inspirations people have drawn from that wonderful television show, this one may be the only unfortunate one: the woman is a patient in an insane asylum. Alas, the Internet is now haunted by people who can defend their appropriation (close associate to plagiarism and theft, often ingenuously identified as ’inspiration’t with the same indignant claim.

Copying is a wonderful experimentation tool; classes are great places for people to get exposed to and assigned ideas, be shown and share techniques, have their mistakes critiqued and maybe corrected; copying and pasting images available in magazines or on the Internet gives people access to otherwise inaccessible subject matter; showing the exciting result of this is good initiation to public exposure. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these activities as long as they are used as learning or research tools, and as long as the source material is credited to its creator. However, for a person to then be able to claim ‘I am an artist”, these activities, whether individually or together, are not enough practice.

Artists are people who have stocked a space with the medium or media with which they’ve been learning, experimenting with and which they’ve researched. They’ve prepared the grounds, the tools and the materials of their own choice and with which they will work for their own reasons, having honed in on what it is they aim to create. They’ve decided on a subject matter and imagery they will address, perhaps they have an idea of the themes they will explore and develop, and given themselves a preliminary starting point  compositionally or conceptually, perhaps through sketching, photography or collage. 

As importantly, artists have set aside time for their creation, they consider it their ‘job’, and they’ve committed to a working schedule of some kind because they understand their own discipline, stamina, endurance and focus. They will do this work not just to sell, not with an exhibition in mind (though one planned in the future may help set an end-date for a series), not to show off their ability or to gain fame but for its own sake. They will do this again and again as the most important, the most necessary activity of their lives.

Friday 13 May 2016

Homage to a Beloved Friend

Bambi's Dream
acrylic on pannel

I lost my darling Bambi today. The sweetheart was at the end of her energy - she’d not eaten much the last couple of weeks and nothing since yesterday. She lost a good six pounds in four months, which for a 19 pound, 11 year-old miniature schnauzer… I’m afraid it’s because of my broken arm. She was always fragile, a rescue dog with epilepsy, weak liver, arthritis, and soft teeth, but she was doing really well until my accident in January. 

I have no doubt that the stress we were under as I healed, including dealing with my other dog, her schnauzer buddy’s new diagnosis of chronic rhinitis, pushed her sensitive immune system over the edge. I suddenly kept finding new bumps on her body that turned out to be very fast growing cancers. By this morning she had three as big as golf balls and at least six others from marble to pea size. There was no way she had enough flesh to remove them all, and anyway, her lack of appetite was a good indication that she had more growing inside.

Until yesterday, despite her weakness, she was going for walks and chasing sticks in the garden. Today, however, she could hardly sustain her tail wagging. She couldn’t even swallow her pain pills. She was ready. When I wrapped her up in a towel, she just settled into my arms and leaned her head against my shoulder. In my friend’s car she curled up on my lap and held her bead up towards me. When we got to the vet’s, she didn’t shake, she didn’t try to jump off my lap to hide under my seat, she didn’t try to go to the other dogs waiting in the anteroom or to get to the exit door. She just sat, warm in my embrace. When we were called in and i sat once more with her she didn’t react to the vet’s touch as he shaved her leg and put in  the needle, she just lay against my chest, heart to heart as I stroked her,, her soft head resting on my arm. I only knew she was gone because her head slid down slightly towards my elbow. 

She loved to chase sticks in the garden and in parks, and balls and stuffed animals in the house. I made a kind of lane for her with a hall carpet  and a big pillow at the end against a wall into which she’d crash at full speed after catching her ‘prey’. She liked to bark at the world through the living room window, sitting on the back of the couch to look out, but when friends arrived she greeted them with such delight no one could resist her. She looked to me, her best friend, with such a mixture of mischief, joy, devotion and trust that I was blessed.

I think only those who share that much love with an animal know such a blessing.

It’s good I have done many sketches, drawings and paintings of her over the eight years she was my friend, and that I’ve caught many of her moods and movements in photographs. She is gone but will ever be present, and she will continue to inspire me, as do the other beings, human or animal, that I’ve loved and lost over the past number of years.

Tuesday 23 February 2016

We Got the Power!

colour pencil on paper

What keeps many artists motivated? A strong connection to feeling and emotion that drives their creative process.

I teach adults to make objects with art-making media. That’s the simple description of what goes on in the class. The complexity is teaching them how to make those objects be art, as opposed to being artistic or creative. What’s the difference, you ask? Emotional truth. Art happens not only when someone masters a tool, medium, technique or style, but when that process is powered by feeling. For something to be ‘expressive’, the art world’s word for emotional truth, it must express SOMETHING. And that’s where adult students run into serious trouble.

Now, the best place to go looking for true feeling is at the moment of first contact with an experience, whether that experience is physical, like riding a horse for the first time, sensory, like stroking a dog’s fur or touching a snake, emotional, like hearing about a loved one’s accident, or intellectual, like having an ‘aha!’ moment in a science experiment. All types engender strong feelings that remain with us long after the experience becomes history. For many of us, however, the clearest memories of feelings are of those we remember from childhood. By the time we’re adults, we’ve learned a number of feeling-suppressing techniques, like moralizing or judging, or ways of explaining, justifying or wallowing that obscure the pure, original experience. Our response as been-there-done-that sophisticates becomes not about remembering the feeling but considering what we did or thought about it, or what others expected us to. That makes imbuing works of art with emotional truth very difficult for students.

Example: In responding to an assignment given to her by another teacher, a friend recently tried to identify the emotion a favourite story inspired in her. The object was for her to then render not the story as an image, but the emotion it inspires in her. That’s a sophisticated exercise that depends on the student’s level of self-awareness: in a state of self-observed reverie, the student must recall the story’s emotional impact, not its content alone or the thoughts or ideas it subsequently inspired. Children do this naturally. Many adults have to relearn it.

This is the story my friend turned to for her assignment; she recounted it to me as it was told to her (there are apparently various versions but they aren’t the object here) :

Six men are stranded by a snow storm in their far north camp in the woods. They are away from their families, and it’s Christmas. The Devil appears to them and makes them an offer. He will send them home for the holidays and return them safely to their camp IF they refrain from swearing or cursing the entire time. The men agree. A canoe appears and they embark though the river is frozen. Suddenly, the canoe rises up and flies as they row. As it covers distance, the men agree that they will not drink during the revels; if they remain sober, they will avoid all temptation and be safe. All goes as planned with five of them, but the sixth drinks, swears at home, and on the way back, he falls out of the canoe and curses. Thinking the Devil won’t have heard, the men manage to haul him back in, maybe they gag him (that part was unclear in the telling) but when they arrive back at their camp, the canoe dumps them all in the snow. Do they end up in Hell? My friend didn’t know. In fact, she didn’t remember ever actually hearing any other ending to the story, though she inferred that the men had been damned by the one’s indiscretion.

In contemplating why this story resonates with her, my friend told me she had trouble trying to create an image to express her feelings. It is a favourite story of hers, but all she could think of as a related emotion was fear. The story’s moral was clear to her: sin and be damned.
“Are you religious?” I asked.
“No,” she answered.
“Why fear then?”
“I’m supposed to fear; it’s an example.”
“To some maybe. But is that what keeps the story alive for you, its moral?”
“Well, no.”
“Anyway, you’re thinking about it through your intellect, not connecting with your feelings. What struck you when you first heard the story?” I asked.
“The flying canoe!” she answered.
“What about it?”
“What a wondrous thing!” she marvelled. “What a sight that would be to witness!”
“There you are!” 

So her task, no simpler now but more true, is to somehow render an image that will convey her wonder. How much more compelling that expression will be than one programmed by other people’s interpretations of the story, by what it’s supposed to convey (perhaps only in that version)! However she chooses to render her image, it will be emotionally true to her experience of it. Now that will be a lesson well learned!

Thursday 11 February 2016

Starring Role

Starring Role
colour pencil on paper relief
C. Ascher

For a number of years, I agreed as a special favour to an artist friend and fellow teacher to be a guest speaker in her class. Besides teaching at the art centre where I am also a curator and an administrator, she teaches at a local university in the art education department. The class in question is meant to prepare potential art teachers to enter the secondary or alternative adult art educational system. My contribution to the class was to address the students as a professional working in not-for-profit art centres. Despite being squeezed into a regular class, I usually spoke for far longer than my allotted time and answered many questions thereafter.

For my first couple of visits, I was paid $50.00 by the university. This is a ridiculous amount for a university to offer a guest speaker, but I was told my friend had obtained it to cover my gasoline and parking costs since her class didn’t qualify as a ‘lecture series’. Since she felt the exposure to professionals was an essential part of her students’ education, for my last appearance when the university didn’t even pay that amount, my friend bought me  lunch.

Despite agreeing to speak to the class, I could not understand a university that puts teachers in a position where they must rely on volunteers to expose their students to professionals in their field, especially in education. Far from educating them to that profession, the message is disrespectful of both the profession and its practitioners. The teacher gets paid to teach but not the expert contributing to that teaching. The university is paid to provide a learning environment for all students equally, but not all guests are paid to help provide that learning.

I certainly understand that budgets are tight and volunteers and donors can add a dimension to the learning experience. Yet I have never known a guest from a university to volunteer to speak. At any rate, I would never expect it. As an educator, and despite working in a not-for-profit sector, I pay my guest professionals, They have invested time and money to achieve the level that makes them valuable as speakers, and it is my responsibility as a host to make sure that achievement is respected. In that regard, part of my responsibility as an educator is to make sure the students or audience to whom my guests present are aware of the value they are receiving. Also, if I am paid for my work, if the institution I work for charges for its work, then there is no excuse for us not to pay our guests for their work. 

This year, the class has been taken over by another person who has requested that I return as a guest speaker, again for one hour of a regular class, with no mention of any kind of renumeration. I guess the assumption is that since I agreed before, I’ll agree again. Now, I also cannot understand a university-level educator who invites a speaker to her class without first taking the trouble to speak with the guest, explain the working conditions and ascertain that the guest will indeed be willing to donate his/her time. The students’ edification may not be motivation enough.

Why did I accept the invitation before as a volunteer  but will not now? Whereas I at least knew the original teacher’s skills and teaching philosophy, I don’t know the new teacher, have no idea what she covers in the class, or her attitude to art education or to art itself.  These details are important for my agreeing to address the class as well as to my preparation for the presentation and the method of its delivery, especially since the very means by which I was  invited goes against all I believe about education, art and the respect of artists.

At the very least, as a professional in a complex field of practice - does the university understand that teaching art is a complex field of practice? -  I would expect that the class spend time preparing to receive me by doing research and agreeing on a series of key questions relevant to their learning. This was not proposed. Lastly, I was asked to cover a demanding, multi-faceted subject, with visual aids yet, in a mere hour squeezed into a business-as-usual class context. All this demonstrates an alarmingly casual, even dismissive attitude to me and to ‘our’ profession.

I have not accepted to speak in this new teacher’s class without renumeration. Instead, I have offered her and her students a free tour of the art centre where I work, a two-hour session during which I will answer the student’s prepared questions about adult art education in a so-called alternative context. It’s a test. Do they value what they ask of me enough to at least make the effort to adjust their schedule and gather where my talk will make most sense? We will see.