Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Hallowed Halls and Quiet Sidewalks

At the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
For over three years, my father-in-law has been planning a all-expense-paid cruise for the family, a cruise which would entail visits in The Netherlands, Ireland, and England. Although I have been a frequent traveler throughout the years--my adventures neatly unfolding between the solid covers of books--I never really ever imagined having anything more than a worn library card. This is one of those gifts that has left me marveling to myself every day, and I think it will for years to come.

In the picture above, taken only a few weeks ago, I am standing in front of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  This gargantuan structure is on par with the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., a beautiful behemoth sprawling with seemingly infinite exhibits. We only saw part of one floor...and we spent nearly the entire day.

It's like walking in the pages of a gigantic art history book, except the reality of what you are seeing keeps stunning you and knocking out your emotional equilibrium. Still-lifes, Biblical scenes, Asian art, vast panoramas of ships and battles, all ranging from the Middle Ages to the late 1800s are displayed, but much of this we didn't see, as there was no time to even stop and pause on those floors.  Our group was on a quest to see the greatest of the great Dutch artists, and so with gusto we bee-lined to the Rembrandts and Vermeers, immediately overwhelmed by the scope and expertise of even supposed 'lesser' painters of their time.

I adore talking about art, about why it can make tears spring to my eyes, about what I learn from it, what I see in it. But how in the world do I talk about the lofty works we saw? I mean, these are works that define an entire culture. They are the totems of Western Civilization.  

Awe, joy, a sense of smallness and even overwhelm, all of these emotions flooded through me as we navigated the crowds in this world-renowned space. I was struck again and again by the 'realness' of the works in front of me, and my mind kept whispering, 'this is the real such-and-such' in order to cut through a continual fog of disbelief.  The real is on a different plane from the photographed or the copy. The real glows and moves and speaks and almost embraces you. It's the closest I can come to magic, how the color pools layered and textured as velvet, and the brushstrokes, made by passionate, worn human hands, speak quiet truths that still are here, after century upon century. Heady stuff. 


'The Milkmaid' Johannes Vermeer, 1657
All of this is beyond the abilities of even the most sophisticated camera lens. Perhaps this is where human inspiration and creativity will always trump technology. It used to drive me crazy how my work seemed somehow drained of life when it was photographed, no matter how many techniques were learned, no matter how advanced the camera or the lighting or even the photographers I sometimes hired. I used to place the photograph next to the work, driven to distraction with how two things could be so similar and yet so intangibly different. But while standing in front of Vermeer's 'The Milkmaid' totally dazzled, I realized that I wasn't alone. Although I have seen this work a thousand times--and perhaps you have too--it was as if I had never seen it before.


The other major museum in Amsterdam we visited was the one dedicated solely to Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh is like a demi-god in Holland, his work in a flashy modern complex that draws hundreds of viewers a day--quite the irony when you consider how shunned he was in his lifetime. I'm glad that I had the experience of being there, especially when stumbling upon the display of his grubby, beat-up tubes of paint and palette, a sight that moved me even more than his ecstatic paintings. Perhaps I was so moved by his simple materials, because it really was the most authentic aspect of the place, the most  'vincent' of the entire building--if that makes any sense.The crowds swarming four deep in front of every painting and the eerie almost rock-star promotion of this humble man really got to me. How surreal to see his haunted face printed on tote-bags and tennis shoes, postcards and books and coffee cups, to see his sunflowers blown up into posters the size of billboards. I surprised my husband by asking to leave early. 
Standing in front of Vincent Van Gogh's Childhood Home, Neunen, The Netherlands
However, it was visiting Neunen, his childhood home, that catapulted me into emotional overload. I hid it well behind a broad tourist smile, but visiting this place hit me with an acheing, deeply personal pathos. 

He was really here, and it seemed like you could feel it in the air, in the quiet, cobbled sidewalks where his boots had actually stepped, hear the echoes of his speech in the heavily accented English of the Dutch tour guide. So little has changed in this tucked-away village; even the very trees and town square were once his everyday world, now looked at through another artist's eyes, two hundred years later.
Vincent Van Gogh's studio
It seemed unimaginable that such emotion could come from this forbidding, nearly windowless brick shed that Vincent loosely called his studio. An outbuilding once used to do the family laundry, it seemed to me a place where perhaps the family could scrub away the shame of having such a blazingly unconventional son. So much alienation and resentment must have kept him company on those endless lone walks in the countryside, painting gear heavy on his back. I completely broke down and wept at his father's grave, the cold tearing through my warm jacket, a chill that had nothing to do with the crisp October day.
 
Humankind will always struggle with worshipping idols, and the arts are not exempt. We have a compulsion to build lavish temples to those who dedicated their lives to something as impractical and necessary as beauty, and we treat what is left behind with truly fanatical care. But it seems to me that the higher and grander we build  monuments, the further we distance ourselves from the energy that resides within the art, and the life that was spent creating it. 


Right now, the painting "The Night Watchmen" by Rembrandt is on display surrounded by scaffolding and a pinnacle of current technology, a scanner that runs back and forth in front of it inch by inch, precisely recording the slightest gradation of color, so that restoration will be done with mathematical accuracy. This painting is now so celebrated it's not only a Dutch work; it's indeed a Dutch identity.  It's easy to forget that it was this painting that began Rembrandt's downfall from fame and led to a tragic bankruptcy from which he never recovered.  It's easy to view the Vermeer works, glowing like jewels under their state-of-the-art track lighting, and forget that Vermeer lived under the charity of his mother-in-law and the oppression of frequent debt. And it's easy to stand in front of a Van Gogh still-life of potatoes, so richly painted and textured that you feel you could reach in and feel their dusty skins, and forget that this might have been all he had to eat that night.

How do we honor great art and still manage to see the sacrifice that lies beneath every brushstroke? That is a question for which I have no answer. 


    





Thursday, September 5, 2019

You Probably Won't Make a Living, But You Can Make A Life

I am not a Buddhist, but I have always been so strangely comforted by the Four Noble Truths, primarily the first one that states, "Life is Filled with Suffering." There is something about this accurate identification of reality, no matter how stark it might be, that soothes the aching questions in my soul. It is like the healthy throb when a broken bone has finally been set correctly, or a rotten festering tooth has been extracted. Sometimes pain is a good, even noble thing, especially if it sharpens our vision.

Our mentors have an uncanny ability of showing up just when we need them the most. Although I have never met Wayne Thiebaud, I have been enchanted with his paintings since the beginning of my own artistic journey. I study his choices of color and way of applying paint on a regular basis. Hearing his candor about the artist's life moves me to healing, strengthening tears.

Because gems are always buried deep beneath mountains of mud, I thought it best to load up my shovel and dig out this video--which will probably never be 'youtube famous'--and hold it up, sparkling in the light, for you as well as for me.






 The power of being an artist is that we never, ever truly know how far our art will reach. We never truly know the impact we have, the minds and hearts we touch. What a blessed and wondrous mystery that is.


  

Friday, August 2, 2019

Where are those Lazy Days of Summer?

I've been lagging in my posts of late, primarily because I've been caught up in the whirlwind that is summertime.  The table you see above you has been my primary canvas, as we have had guests--sometimes a couple a week--for the past month or so. Although I am the typical introverted creative type, I have enjoyed each and every visit to the utmost.  But it does remind me of how Henry David Thoreau, author of the book, Walden, and famous icon of the solitary, simple life ironically discovered that many a visitor wanted a tour of his 'lonely' monastic life. We have been paid that same compliment, and although it has been sweet, it does tend to shrink my studio time.

I thought I'd just give you an update of what is happening on my easel...in the hopes that these little tidbits/musings will keep the juices flowing for when I am able to devote more concentrated hours. Right now, I am working in small snatches when I just can't stand to be away any longer. But I am missing that slow 'hushing and holding' that Dr. Eric Maisel talks about in his book, "Fearless Creating," where he describes a meditative daydreaming about the work, where the mind is testing out possibilities and imagining different objects and pathways for the work. I've been far too busy to simply stare at my canvas and wonder where it is going. I don't feel passionate about the work yet, and it shows. But I know this busy time will end...as all things eventually do, and then the paint will fly.
 
 This is the current work on my easel right now. Wow, I'm wincing... it's really in ugly duckling stage. I'm not quite sure where this thing is going right now...only that I am interested in showing how people can be physically close together and yet lost in their own worlds. It is slow going, because I am dealing with the challenge of multiple people on a bus, all that variety of expressions and thoughts, the clash of public and private. I'm still toying with what to do with the scenes out the windows. I have a few ideas, but feel too scattered to delve into them yet. Funny how impressions get channeled into a work...the little girl in red really reminds me of our chatter-box neighbor girl, and the blond woman was inspired by someone I saw in a fast food restaurant. One of the things I love about children out in public is the way they so calmly and so starkly stare out into the world. They are inscrutable and yet so open...all at the same time. 

The work below, by one of my favorite artists, Alice Neel, really captures that curious combination of expression and expressionless-ness in children...something I also seeking to portray in my own way. Look at how effortlessly she is able to show personality and our basic humanity...masterful!! And boy, does it show that I have a long way to go.
'Two Girls--Spanish Harlem' Alice Neel, 1959.

 Well, folks, that's probably about all for today. Still searching for that fabled hammock and endless glass of lemonade--or even better, a few uninterrupted hours of creating--and I'll report back when I find it.







Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Showing Our Work

'Insider Trading on the Artroom Floor, Cory Jaeger Kenat, 1999
Art--made in the twilight of the subconscious--is always destined to be exposed to the noonday glare of the callous crowd. In whatever form it takes, art is made to be expressed, to be shown, shared, and commented upon. It is a harsh fact that can drive many an artist into 'Sunday painting' hermit-hood, where paintings are made only to be stacked and hidden away in the garage. But no matter our shyness, the work will be revealed and examined--if only in the far future by those close to us.
'The Secret Garden', Cory Jaeger Kenat, 2001

I've done my fair share of hiding my work, and I wonder if you have, too. As a child, whenever footsteps would approach, I would hastily shove my drawings under the bed. My parents had praised me highly when I was drawing frilly figures of sweet sunbonneted little girls, and as I grew into more realistic imagery, they disapproved.

Many artists learn acceptance of their art in their elementary school classrooms. Kids celebrate and enjoy art, and admire those they think do it well. The designated 'class artist' is a real thing for them. Our notebook doodles and tentative sketches are fawned over by teachers and schoolmates, and often this is the first inkling we might have that we are 'artistic'. Showing our work in this environment is a giddy pleasure, and can really give us 'big fish in a small pond' syndrome.

'Escape or Embrace?' Cory Jaeger Kenat, 2000
We need the support of that little soft cocoon--for once we hit college, abruptly, without warning, we hit the concrete. We are now in a room full of people who also have been told they are big fish. No one can skewer another artist quite like one of his peers, no one can spot more keenly where the critiqued work is lazy or clumsy. And no can give support quite like another student artist, because no student artist will tell you it's good unless they really mean it. From the rocky road of art critiques, fledgling artists then climb into the jungle of public receptions, rejection letters, and the merciless commentaries of gallery directors.

So, I think the stereotype of the 'prima donna', hysterically fragile artist is pretty much left to books and movies. Typically, after being in the art world for awhile, it's second nature for opinions to roll off your back. But just because you're tough doesn't mean the arrows don't stop coming.

'The Bright Pink Cup' Cory Jaeger Kenat, 2012
Art naturally evokes a range of emotions, anything from shock, delight, dislike, awe, or even jealousy.  Often viewers are intimidated by the gallery atmosphere and think they must say something 'profound'. These comments tend to fall flat, coming out artificial or even silly. They think they might say the 'wrong' thing, when all the artist wants, I believe, is an honest, natural reaction. I think that there are some viewers who think that an artist will crumble if they say something critical, so they pat them on the head with a neutral 'that's nice' or 'gee, what an imagination.' I wish that viewers would understand that it is completely okay to tell an artist that they don't like the work, or they don't understand it. It's also okay for viewers to express what they see in the work, even it is contrary to what the artist intended to portray. I have been asked many questions about my paintings over the years, and I always appreciate them, even the difficult, most snarky ones. Questions have often been the catalyst for an art sale. A question, by it's very nature, implies some sort of interest, and it opens up a dialogue. But it's also okay, and I can't stress this enough, for there to be an apathetic response to the work. The work did not move that viewer. So what.

'Painter's Block' Cory Jaeger Kenat, 2012
Even though art's very nature is one of visibility, that doesn't mean that the artist creates work for the viewer. Our art always remains our own, no matter what others may think of it. Commentary can be something that we can choose to learn from or it can just be background noise. Actors and writers often go by the old maxim, "Never read your reviews." And although it is nearly impossible to avoid the interpersonal 'reviews' happening every moment during an art show, it is quite possible to put them in a proper perspective. It is indeed possible to take what is useful from them, and discard the rest.

I will conclude with a quote from Dr. Eric Maisel, from his book, "The Van Gogh Blues". This is a book that probably every artist should have in their library.
 "Your job is to live in a way that makes you feel proud of yourself, to live that way today, tomorrow, and every day thereafter. If that means creating flower paintings, researching the Crusades, launching guerilla theater, or playing ancient music from your native land, that is what you will do. If you can truthfully say, "I am proud of the work I am trying to do", and "I am proud of the person I am trying to be", you are on the right path. If you can't, you must change."

So, keep on creating, but most of all, keep on sharing. The world desperately needs what you are trying to give, even though it might not know it--yet.




 


















 











 



  



















 
















 




Thursday, March 21, 2019

A Discussion of a Painting-- "Aint' Buying"

'Ain't Buying' acrylic on canvas 5"x7"
It appears we are yet in another housing/real estate bubble, and I find that quite ironic, since this work was made during the previous one. This piece is part of my 2008  'Breaking Between Commercials' series, a time when I was chin deep in my own mid-life crisis, and my country, with its bail-outs and cheap paper money was careening through a mental breakdown.  It took many a year for my husband and I to finally purchase our first home, mainly because we were not dazzled by 'easy' loans and high pressure promises. This painting reflects lessons learned during that frustrating time.
 
Of course, we have a pin-up girl front and center, because sex sells everything, a goddess in a swimming suit ushering in the 'good life'. The credit cards are like little stepping stones, dancing their way up to a plastic, house-shaped game piece from a Monopoly board. A tiny detail often missed is the realtor sign in front of it. As this work is only 5"x 7", I cannot tell you how many hours I worked with fine pin-pointed brushes to get those details on the credit cards...they are harder to paint than one might think, and especially on such a small scale.

The squirt guns in the foreground were a last minute touch, and I think that they add just a little bit of menace to the picture. They also give the sense of 'being under the gun', of being pressured, and yet, they are the color of popsicles and rainbows. They symbolize how so many people can become hypnotized by colorful notions of  'no down payments'  and a glamorous house--and then wake up to foreclosure nightmares.

The background of this work is barren...it could be a sandy beach or a desert, but whatever it is, nothing grows there. A home is different than a house, merry-go-round ponies only take you in circles, and going after more, more, more just takes more from you. Hopefully, someday, we will learn all that.



Sunday, February 10, 2019

Finding the Time to Make Art





There is a saying that 'days are long, but the years are short,' and in art-making this is most certainly true. A couple days go by without doing your creative activity, and then before you know it, it's a few weeks.The calendar gets scribbled on some more, and a few months have gone by. And hopefully, you start to see the dust gathering on your work-table and it sets off alarm bells deep within your soul. Because before you know it, those days can morph into old, stale years marked only with wistful good intentions. And sometimes, so very sadly, artists decide that they used to create, because it's been so long since they last tried to make anything, and they are probably so rusty that what's the use, and in the midst of all those excuses, potential drifts away.
The Listeners, 2013, c. Cory Jaeger Kenat


I'll be the first to admit that I'm not as prolific with my art as I used to be. As I mentioned in the last post, storage concerns have greatly slowed me down. But I have always been pretty adept at time management, and carving out some time nearly every day for art has yielded walls of completed works over the years.

There are Other Ways to Measure Time, 1999, c. Cory Jaeger Kenat
It really doesn't take much time, after all, to follow your dream. I have had chaotic seasons in my life where I would set the kitchen timer for fifteen minutes and paint like a madwoman until the thing went off. Sometimes it was a great trick to propel me forward a little bit, even if I wasn't in the mood, and in those cases I might reset the timer for a couple more fifteen minute sessions. But other times, when things were really, really tight, that might be all the over-scheduled day would allow, but at least, it was something. And then I could go about all the other work knowing that I had given a bit of time to something special in my life.

Artists often think in grand, sweeping vistas. It's part of their dramatic nature. It's not uncommon to hear unfulfilled artists stating that the only way they can follow their heart is to run away from it 'all' for a few solid months. But work can be done, even in the most crazy of times.

'Pink Pearl' 2006, c. Cory Jaeger Kenat
I have always 'planned my work, worked my plan', so yes OCD that I am, I write a list of what I intend to do before I begin each day. At this point, I am able to schedule a 'studio hour', and I spend that hour in the morning, when my mind is the sharpest. Dr. Eric Maisel, creativity coach and author of 'Fearless Creating' as well as a host of other books, strongly suggests that you tackle your creative tasks as early in the morning as possible. He reasons that this way the projects that are closest to your heart take top priority in your life and don't get shunted off the last part of the day, when a person is drained and apt to procrastinate. I am a morning person by nature, and I can imagine that this would be hard for those who dread the a.m. But I can see the logic of all this, and have to admit that when I was working full-time and didn't paint in the morning, I never got anything done in the evening...even my fifteen minute fail-safe often succumbed to the stupid sitcoms on the TV. 


'Hailing', 2006 c. Cory Jaeger Kenat

 An artist's life demands cleverness with resources, whether it be materials, money, or especially time. It's crucial that we take our lives seriously, and that means accepting the fact that our art will not be made unless we give it the time it needs.




    





Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Musings on the 'Thingness' of Art



Many millennia ago, a young art student that I vaguely think just might have been me, was having an overly enthusiastic discussion after class with her art professor. Her words were pouring out fast as she expounded about her 'latest discovery', discoveries that seemed to happen nearly daily. On that particular occasion, again fevered by the grandeur and power of art, she was raving about the massive Baroque masterpieces in the Louvre and the magnificent, imposing scale of some of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings. Completely forgetting that she lived in a cramped two-bedroom apartment filled with two children, piles of textbooks and boxes of happy meal toys, she breathlessly exclaimed, "Oh, I so want to make such huge works, works that take up an entire wall!" 

The professor's warm eyes crinkled at the corners. He was used to such exuberance, at least in her. Gently he replied,

 "And that, my dear, is when you develop a storage problem."

It's easy to get caught up in the romantic notions of art, the idea aspect of it. But we tend to forget that art is also an object, a thing, with all the requisite problems that entails. It has dimensions, it has weight, and yes, indeed, it can gather dust. It's great to dream big artistic dreams, but taking care of big paintings, and many of them at that, is quite another matter.

In the 1990s, when I was a student and then a professional artist, there was a craze where it seemed every non-profit and charitable foundation was looking for art to auction for worthwhile causes. I know that some artists really found it to be an affront to be asked to donate one of their works, either receiving no compensation if it sold, or a tiny percentage of the sale. I saw it as a golden opportunity to space clear my studio area, to move out all the odds and ends, and do something generous in the process. Auctions and donations really kept the creativity channel clear, so to speak, because my old work never really overstayed its welcome. 

Casual art venues were also more prevalent then. The hipster coffee shop seemed to be on every street corner, and the owners and customers were craving exotic artwork almost as much as the latest latte. Although at one time, I was represented by three galleries in my state, it was the coffee shop that really gave me a tangible sense that all of my work mattered. Although I had one sell-out show, most of the time I would wind up with 'left-overs', those paintings that remained after the majority of the series had sold. These works may have been quieter, or more experimental, or might not have been in keeping with my typical style. These were the ones eventually scented with espresso on funky brick walls. It was fun to watch people who had never even attended an art event fall in love with a piece of art...it was fun for me, fun for so many of us in those days. Praise was wonderful, publicity was great, and of course, money was needed, but there was nothing like having a nearly empty studio because almost everything had found a home.  Now, that was a high.

Picture of Alice Neel in her studio.

But like almost everything in life, things have changed. Galleries, feeling cut out of the financial loop, started to clamp down on their represented artists engaging in such practices. The coffee shop went corporate, with tastefully mass-produced prints on their walls, and auctions once again returned annually only to the plush province of the stately museums. 

 I am thrilled that out of the hundreds of paintings I have made, only a couple of medium-sized stacks of canvas and a few shoe boxes filled with smaller works under my bed remain. But this is about the limit that my small cottage home will contain, and I refuse to succumb to the solution of the storage unit. Not wanting to found buried under an avalanche of canvas, and yet still wanting to create has indeed influenced my present work-style. Except for the rare large panel, something I may obsess over for years, most of my work has shrunk radically in size, while expanding in thoughtfulness and detail. Where once I was captivated by art the size of billboards, now I realize that most often, my gems must be small.
'The LaceMaker', Johannes Vermeer, 1669
This work, by legendary Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer, is only 9" x 8". I find it fascinating how many of his works are so detailed and yet so small, and wonder if he, too, dealt with similar problems.

Funny, that as my paintings become smaller, my concept of what art is has only grown larger. I find that I work more thoughtfully these days, as much concerned about where my idea will be finally be placed, as well as the idea itself. In other words, I realize that a painting takes up space and care in this world, and in my view, it must be worthy of that space. Process over product, quality over quantity, the very best I can do over just a bunch of dramatic attempts...this is the way I work today. And if my best-laid intentions still go awry and the work is languishing in a corner somewhere for a bit too long, I think of how Buddhist monks make sand mandalas that almost make your eyes ache with their beauty... and then simply sweep them into gray dust when they are finished.
 It's okay now for me just to have the experience of making the piece, and learning what I had to learn, and standing knee-deep in that wonderful river of creativity. And while I admit I also have my sentimental side, being washed in that river is far too exhilarating to damn it up with old paintings, with stagnant limitations and longings. Now paintings are painted over or even destroyed to make room for something new, and there is no dreaded storage problem in my house--or, hopefully in my soul. I'm still working on the last part. Because there is this 'thingness' society associates with art, an artist who decides to be one for life, must become a quiet rebel and also seek out its intangible qualities. Setting a lovely table, putting the finishing frosting touches on a double chocolate cake, having a meaningful conversation...who's to say that this too is not art? Yes, the paintings of Monet's water-lilies are famous, but so were his lunches in the garden.  So this probably wasn't the article for you, if you were simply looking for storage solutions in your cluttered studio. Or maybe it was. Because art is so much more than stacks of canvas, or lumps of dried clay, or piles of manuscript paper. Art can be in every moment of how we live, from the jaunty scarf we decide to tie around our neck before heading out the door...to the way we answer the telephone. Art is living deeply and well, and it is the artist's job to make you pay attention to every breath.  And if the piles are making you forget that...throw them out.