Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Studio Update

 

I have always found that it takes enormous energy to paint, and when there is just too much chaos going on everywhere else, there is just not enough fuel in the artistic tank. However, this time of isolation has lead to a reading marathon, and I have been diving deep into my library of art psychology books. One completely simple and ground-changing epiphany has emerged. And that is this: 'I make art because it is part of my daily practice.'  A monk in an Asian monastery does his martial art forms every day without fail. He strives for excellence and mastery and even a form of transcendence. He does his moves like the mountain climber climbs a mountain--because it must be done--because it is there. He does not execute his moves thinking, 'Wow, when I get really good...I'm going to see how best to market this amazing skill." The Asian monk teaches me that some things are just done because they are part of my consciousness, part of who I am. I cannot express what peace and self-control this meditation brings.  I am going to make the art. That is my part, my pact with the Universe. I will let God decide where to take it from there.

Here is where the work in the previous post is today. It is still far from completed, but now the problems to solve are much more about technical elements instead of conceptual ones.The piece will be entitled, "Leaving the Promised Land." What has taken me so long has been figuring out the symbology in the bus windows, which is still in progress. I am also playing with a metaphor I have used in the past---layering objects one on top of another, like the peonies in the background. Eventually, I will make them even more transparent, more ghostly. Another challenge in this piece is painting a group of people. It's like doing nine portraits! The little girl sitting by her waitress mother has probably been painted over completely five times.

The theme of people being isolated in crowds and also on journeys seems to be a current fascination.  Funny note: my niece came over after not seeing her for several months,  and she thought I had started an entirely new painting she had never seen before. I actually began this work while we were making art together and had it in 'ugly duckling' stage many times while she was visiting. This happens often to many guests (and even my husband), and I find it a reliable indicator how much my work does indeed transform over time. 





Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Busy Blooming

"My partner's been pleasure, my partner's been pain."
--Stevie Nicks

I take my art very seriously. Heck, I take art in general very seriously. I probably take life itself too seriously. And in all this seriousness, it is easy to get bogged down, to forget that art is play as well as penetrating insights. Art is often about the shadows, and the sorrow of human existence, but it doesn't always have to be. Deciding to hold wonder and joy in our daily lives retains its own bravery, an act that makes its own ripples in the world.


An interesting exercise of self-exploration: review the art you have created over the years. What were you going through when you made this work, or that one? Did your emotional state fuel the work, or fight with it? What emotional state helps you best 'get out of your own way' and create at your optimum? I have made work after the end of a romantic love affair where tears were streaming down my cheeks as I painted--yes, this is a kind of energy. But I have also made sunny works like these, that resonate a very different inner state. If art truly represents life in all its facets, then there is a vast spectrum of expressions, and a place for it all.

This spring I can't seem to tear myself away from this project, even though I have other, more ponderous things on the easel. These are simple industrial tiles that you would put in a bathroom, that I am coating with layers and layers of paint, then sealing with thick varnish. I am making them specifically for a special seating spot in my garden. I want this outdoor space to bloom year round, and can't wait to see these brave flowers blazing even through winter snow. With each piece, I am reminded that sometimes art is an emotional and technical struggle, but sometimes it is okay to take a breather, to do things because they are fun.









Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Studio Update

Well, my 'bus' painting is slowly evolving. It is still far from done, but has undergone a great deal of changes since I posted about it way back in August. The mother and child in the foreground were completely repainted, and the older woman in the front was just sketched out back then. I don't feel as lost as I was previously, and I think I finally know what this work wants to say. I have some wild things I want to do with the landscape out the windows, and I still have some small background passengers to complete. As always, the painting starts to get real bossy about what it's about, and eventually I just try my best to do what I'm told. The process of this work has been interesting, because I have really been making an effort to visually memorize people I encounter out in the world, and although there is no striking likeness, I still am attempting to copy clothing styles and the like.   



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.