Monday, June 11, 2018

Chasing the Dream, until the Dream Caught Me



It was all such a whirlwind. One day I was a starry-eyed art student, working on my psychology degree with an art minor, all prepared to become an art therapist. I saved my art classes--like dessert--for the last of my college years, and was completely unprepared for how that first soaring line across the paper would change me. I began to squeeze fifteen minutes here and there to make art in a crowded over-achiever schedule where at times I was interning, working as a teaching assistant, and laboring on independent study projects--seemingly simultaneously.
working at a domestic violence shelter

my first solo art show, at a furniture store
To top it all off, my artistic attempts were getting attention even when I was still in school. I won first and second place in a collegiate poetry competition, and my paintings were garnering praise from my teachers and awards in student shows. I took careful notes on marketing and was researching artist buy-sell contracts while many of my fellow art students were playing hacky-sack in the quad. I did my first paid commission for another student in the midst of studying for finals and participated in a group show with super-talented artist friends that garnered front-page publicity. Within a few months of graduating with only an art minor, a local and prestigious gallery in my hometown offered representation. The work began to sell, prices began to go up, and I had the bizarre experience of having my work hanging publicly next to the work of admired mentors.
 

Two solo shows and the resulting publicity resulted in two more galleries in the state asking for my work. I quickly learned the art of packing and shipping. The phone rang with offers; I was being asked for interviews and asked to teach free-lance classes for adults and children. A significant grant from a funding organization in New York City came my way and paid for the burgeoning framing costs, because although my large paintings were commanding around $1,000, framing and sales commissions were keeping me poor, and constantly striving to stay afloat with new opportunities.  Paintings went to Switzerland, Australia, and Canada. There was even an all expense paid trip to Chicago for a one-woman show. One particularly vivid moment I remember was standing in my living room/studio gazing at a large powerful work that had just been finished, while on the phone with my gallery director, who was saying she had run out of my paintings and needed more as soon as possible. That was the moment that I thought I had truly 'made it'--whatever that is.



 I was barely out of my twenties.



I can imagine that I might sound like I'm bragging or gloating over my supposed success. I can also imagine that stories like this can provide inspiration--or provoke envy. But I tell you this only because in the end, this path is nothing to emulate. In fact, it almost killed off my creative ability--and yes, it almost killed me.

There is a reason why so many child stars wind up as freakishly troubled adults, doing designer drugs, crashing their cars and posing for mug-shots. No, I didn't go that far off the deep end. But within a year or so of all this success I hurled myself at top speed into a psychological wall that I had no idea was coming, and the impact on my psyche was as mangled as James Dean's wrecked Porche Spyder.


So many of us artists imagine the heady experience of the solo show, where all eyes are upon you and the champagne glasses are lifted in tribute to your work. Others imagine their visions mounted in gold frames on stately museum walls. Others imagine wearing ripped jeans and making sweeping billboard works in echoing enormous studios while others, like me, just imagine the warm thrill of steady, ongoing income. No one wants to admit it, but these kind of fantasies permeate the air in college art studios every bit as much as the smell of oil paint.

The problem with our quest to sell art is that so often it interferes with the very spirit that we are given to make it. That spirit is child-like, inventive, fragile, and brimming with an energy that is much like joy even when it hurts. For a little while, it can tolerate being told that it must make the same type of art that was such a sensation at last year's showings. For a little while, it can be told that the color palette has to be in earth tones rather than crimson in order to better match the furniture. For a little while, it can be told to sit politely in the niche others have placed it in, and not explore other avenues, other kinds of thought. For a little while, it can even tolerate the mind-splitting dichotomy of making something fresh--and yet the same. 

But this is only for a little while for some of us. Yes, there are some artists who manage to stay the course and somehow resolve this dilemma. But I was not one of them. 

 I had been pigeon-holed, ironically, as a rebellious, deeply vulnerable feminist artist. But I knew my art was being misinterpreted, and I also knew that I wanted to be truly shocking in today's art world and actually make some work that was, well, not shocking at all. I wanted to learn more technique, study more, and actually make some work that didn't demand a chunk of my heart and airing out my dirty laundry. I wanted to experiment and yet learn more of the fundamentals of drawing, of shadow and light. I wanted to get back to why I loved it sitting in front of an easel in the first place.

The art business/gallery world taught me many toxic lessons. The primary one was that art is only valuable if it is saleable. The lofty notion of art for art's sake is thrown out the window when there are electric bills and salaries to pay. The art biz loudly expounds on taking risks and being daring, but underneath it all you know you better make the stuff quick, and make it something 'popular.'

And conversely, if it doesn't have these qualities--the art business decrees it worthless. It is entirely possible to be hailed a genius one minute, and have your name forgotten the next. It's not a far step in this line of reasoning to think that 1.) if the work isn't saleable, 2.) and thus it is worthless, 3.)perhaps the artist is--as well. I don't have any proof of this, but I strongly believe this is the kind of thing that brings about the tragic image of the drugging, philandering, suicidal 'has-been' artist.

This art system is so impressed and compelled by big figures because, after all, it is a business.  Completely understandable. But to believe that a business should be the sole gatekeeper for our deepest human expressions has lead to a notoriously terrible record of blindness towards the truly meaningful and sublime. Remember that Vincent Van Gogh spent his entire life rejected by this system, with his nose pressed up to the glass, yearning to join a group of celebrities that we now know were just a blip in history.

No, I'm not saying that it is wrong to pursue gallery representation. It's quite okay to sell your work, but selling your worth is quite another matter. 

 What I am strongly saying that your art-making talent is something that comes from your heart; it is a precious, precious gift that I believe comes directly from the ultimate Creator. You didn't earn this; you were gifted it. It is as elusive, glorious, and tender as a butterfly's wing. 
Remember that. 














 

















 

 








Friday, May 4, 2018

A Day Trip or a Journey

'Colored Pencils'  Cory Jaeger-Kenat
  It is often said in beginning art classes that students should make piles of artworks. Some instructors ask that their students pledge to create multiple studies a week, the more the better. In the book, "Art and Fear", authors David Bayle and Ted Orland observe that students who make a greater quantity of art tend to make better art than those who labor over a few select pieces.

I agree with this, up to a point. Right now, I have four pieces in the works, all different genres that interest me. Every artist has their own process, their own speed, and I am right where I like to be.




Apples and Cups, Cory Jaeger-Kenat
Being able to whip out a variety of canvases can keep the artistic child inside me playful and fresh. Not worrying so much about creating a finished, polished work really takes the pressure off, and can help me to access motor memory in my hands and vision.  The study is all about flash and play, spontaneity and a quick unattached result.  There are artists in the 'Painting a Day' movement that are so adept at this style of quick painting that they do indeed make us see the world with whole new eyes. I am not saying studies are less than completed paintings, or vice versa.
Dance of Joy, Cory Jaeger-Kenat
A fitting metaphor for these kind of pieces are that they are a day trip out of town. This approach is much like hopping in the car with a picnic basket, seeing where the road will take you, and winding up back at home by sunset.


But sometimes an artist decides to embark on another kind of conceptual quest. This is a journey to a distant land, where you might stay for months without knowing the language. You will have to adjust yourself to the customs in this territory, and you may have times when you have fallen madly in love with the sweeping vistas, and other times when you are desperate to stow away on the nearest ship for home, but there is no turning back.

The sketch, the study, the bit of dabbled experiment suddenly becomes worthy of investing--and even risking--a bit of your life upon. It becomes a work. The study grabs the artist; there will be an idea that wraps itself around the artist's soul, and then it becomes do or die. And this is when it could take months, and sometimes, even years, of obsessive effort and yes, love. It requires commitment, a willingness to put aside your plans of what you thought the work would be, a willingness to let it grow and develop itself.  For example,the painting below, entitled 'Naomi's Prayer' took over two years to complete, because there were so many different forms it took in process...something I will elaborate on in another post. Essentially, I painted four different complete works--all on the same canvas, before I settled on what you see below.

"It as if a crowd has to walk through the damn painting and shift around before I can lock any parts into place. " Robert Birmelin


Naomi's Prayer, Cory Jaeger-Kenat
This is when the adage that no great thing is created suddenly becomes your life-line. Unlike other artists, I do not believe you can over-work a painting. Yes, there is a point where a painting has been completed, but it is always--in my view-- after a long and thoughtful process, built on mistakes and change, change undergone in the work, and change undergone in the artist.  The artist has crossed an invisible line into a more sublime sphere, a place where years can be dedicated to multiple ideas in one artwork, where layer upon layer of pigment will be painted and painted over, where shining new insights will be found just when it feels like its time to give up.

There is no art which has not had its beginnings in things full of errors. Nothing is at the same time both new and perfect. (Leon Battista Alberti)  

A painting is only done after an inner journey has been completed. It is when you sit back and know it is finished...there is absolutely nothing left you can do to this work...you look at it and marvel a little bit that this creation has been added to the world.

interviewer: How do you know when you're finished with a painting?
Jackson Pollock: How do you know when you're finished making love?

"The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through." Jackson Pollock

It is said that Leonardo da Vinci never felt truly satisfied with the Mona Lisa. I can only imagine how obsessed da Vinci must have been, a man so captivated by one lady's enigmatic smile, that it drove him to create a single small portrait that defines the very epitome of painting. The jewel of the Louvre, and he still didn't think it was done.
from Reader's Digest, CA.
So, whether your next artistic endeavor is a quick jaunt to the local Farmer's Market on a sunny day, or six months scaling the heights of Kilimanjaro, plunge in...knowing that all trips, both great and small are a worthwhile adventure. 







Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A Different Reason to Make an Art Portfolio

At the risk of sounding like the little old lady talking about walking miles in the snow to school, I am going to share with you a bit of what it was like to be an artist in the 'golden era' of the 1990s. It flat-out flabbergasts me to think how much has changed in just a few decades; in fact, I do not think I exaggerate when I state that the art world is unrecognizable to what I knew back then, young whippersnapper.

Of course, the primary difference is the advance of computer technology. The 1990s were before digital cameras, before smart-phones, and the internet was mostly for computer-science majors. That meant that art works had to be photographed and converted into slides for gallery directors to pop into a slide projector and view. That meant that you needed photographic lights, a good camera, film, and you would have to drop that film off at a place that would develop it. You kept your fingers crossed the whole time praying that the slides would come out well, because it was impossible to know until after they were developed. More than once, I brought home an entire role of dark, blurry slides--this was not uncommon, and I still had to pay for them.



Not only that, but your cover letter, artist statement, resume, and brief biography all had to be typed on a type-writer on paper. This was the time of eraser ribbons and the intoxicating scent of white-out. If you were one of those cutting-edge folks, you might have a word processor, a gadget that was a glorified
state of the art word processor
typewriter-computer-wannabe. The cost of postage for sending out these bundles, that consisted of all this paper (of course everything was only printed on one side), slide sheets, some sort of note-binder and a manila envelope with return postage, was a small king's ransom. Put it this way, I spent almost as much trying to promote my work as I did framing my paintings, and I spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars framing my work. I kid you not when I say that we ate bargain basement macaroni and cheese for many a dinner, just to get my art some exposure. Add to this the fact that almost every persnickety art director demanded that slides be labelled precisely to his or her specifications, and well, that meant that not only was I throwing bags of money at these things, I was also spending hours in the depths of tedium hand-writing inch-long labels that had to be exactly just so.  You expected to wait months for a response, and often, it was touch-and-go whether your materials would be returned. A rejection letter hit so hard back then, because it not only was a rejection of one's work, it was the evidence that so much time, late-nights, and resources had just gone gurgling down the drain.

For some years, I was working so hard on portfolios that I decided what the heck, I might as well see if I could make this a business in itself. Italics, which is still the name of my formal URL address for Loud Colors Studio, was born because I realized that I wasn't the only one struggling with writing all of these materials and putting together these infernal packets. And I felt that I must have figured something out along the way, since all of my toil in the salt-mines of promotion had led to steady representation in three regional galleries, and show acceptances around the nation. I greatly enjoyed helping clients reach their goals, and the earnings were nice, but it would take some sort of SuperArtist to balance all of these demands with my own studio work, and well, I found out I wasn't that super.

It's so different today. I have been out of the conventional art world for many years now--by my own choice. But one of the last formal museum shows I participated in was arranged with one email and a couple of attached jpegs. It quite literally took minutes, and I didn't spend a dime. Artists now exhibit their art on their own websites, snap dazzling images of their work on digital cameras, and are able to send pictures of their latest creations to everyone on their mailing list with a click of a button.

Ironically enough, a portfolio is much more important to me now than it was in those heavy-duty 'marketing' years. Now, I'm thinking in terms of keeping records of my work, of somehow preserving images of all of my pieces in an easily handled format. Many of them have sold over the years and I want some way to remember them, as well. It kind of saddens me a bit, that we are not taught this principle in our art classes. A portfolio has so much anxiety swirling around it; we are taught that it is a vehicle to impress others, but we don't stop and ask ourselves if we could also use it as a record, a history of where we are now, and how far we have come.  We don't think of it as a diary, a gift to ourselves.

It took me nearly a decade to get my website at www.italics.us where it is now. Most of the time spent was in learning how to actually write webcode; I wanted to know every aspect of how to run my site, and I completely geeked out. I love computer languages, but I must admit I have to study hard--they do not come naturally. But another huge chunk of time was taken because I kept completely building the site only to completely tear it down and redo it again from the ground up. Improvement is a good thing, but I was thinking too much about impressing that invisible critic 'out there', that ghost from galleries past. I was too self-conscious, and no actor is really any good if he can't forget his audience. It wasn't until I decided to think of this website as a legacy, as a statement of what I valued and what I achieved---that things finally started to come together in a lasting, satisfying way.

I am considering some possibilities in showing my work 'out there' again someday, but I know that I if I decide to go through with those ideas, I will never consider my portfolio in quite the same way. Maybe it's because I am an older lady who's grown a bit cantankerous, but I don't think my portfolio will ever again be a vehicle to get some art director to please, please, please like me or my work. It will never be put together in that spirit again. The days of twisting myself into a pretzel, hoping to get outside approval are over. It doesn't mean that I intend to be all arrogant and 'all that', expecting them to just fall all over themselves because I have asked them to view my work. No, it's more that I just want to use my portfolio as a straight-forward tool that says, "This is who I am. This is what I stand for. Maybe you'll resonate with it; maybe you won't. Thank you for looking." I plan to use this amazing technology to categorize, depict, and explain my work, to continue to expand out into a larger audience, if that is possible. There are scary consequences, however, to having everything just in a digital format, and I am also thinking that I will build something from really good quality photographs, and yes--more paper. My portfolio is something I hope will outlast me long after I am gone.

I guess what I am saying, is honor yourself as an artist. Honor your history, your future, the self that is you that is a creator. Yes, if it is a marketing tool that you are going to send around to venues, a portfolio should be somewhat edited and probably just include samples of your best work. And a smaller, more portable version can be created for that purpose. But a portfolio can also be enlarged, using a website, for example, to be more of an archive, an autobiography of your process. Make your portfolio for you, in the long run.

I love to follow Stefan Baumann on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCo1OiRSBW4drYnsakd68uig.  Although we differ radically in our aesthetic passions and even some of our views, he is a fabulous art instructor and working artist, who knows how to address the heart of an artist. One thing he frequently says is that when an artist passes away, it is not the china or the jewelry that the kids fight over. No, suddenly family who had not real interest or understanding in what the artist was doing, desperately want one of their artworks. They even fight over them. They want them because the art is ultimately the most unique expression from that person. Suddenly they recognize the artwork's intrinsic personal value--value and meaning that go far beyond fame or fortune.

 A portfolio is a symbol of a life well and deeply lived.  Treat it--and yourself--with a vision that extends far beyond the next 'call for artists'.    





 

 

 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Technique--Art on the Edge, Part Two

In this post, as promised, I would like to talk a little bit about how I get line quality in my work. As I may have touched on in my previous post, I am completely and utterly infatuated with what line can do. This is totally a personal preference. I know one artist for instance, who absolutely abhors lines and doesn't think his work is done unless each and every delineation is gone. He likes a much softer, tone next to tone approach. 

I think I'll start with one of my more recent paintings, from 2017. This piece is called "Sarah and Isaac", and is part of a series where I am depicting in new ways the lives of women in the Bible. I actually intended a more realistic look, but sometimes paintings have a life of their own, and this one was certainly opinionated.  :)  There is a feeling of a religious icon here, and it was sorely tempting to thickly outline everything--like in a stained glass window-- but then I knew it would be too much. I wanted to aim for a semi-modern art graphic effect, and still retain somewhat of a 'classical' feel at the same time. It was a tough balancing act.

The outline around Sarah's head was what I like to call a 'happy accident', a term I've co-opted from my favorite art professor in days of old. It was made by having a much lighter background color surrounding her head first, and then, over time as the piece progressed, laying in new colors, and leaving just that hint of the old color. I believe that many subtle effects are made this way, by blocking color around an object, and then layering a new color--but leaving an outline of the previous. I hope this makes sense...if not, I will go into this further in the future, maybe show you a step by step demonstration. Thicker, more visible lines were used to accentuate parts of her outer form, with a line on only sections of Isaac's arm and overalls. The figures in the field, representing the family lineage (no pun intended) of souls that are not born yet, were outlined a bit more heavily, to give them 'punch' from their vividly colored background. It made me SO nervous to add that little bit of black contour to the bottom of the clouds, but I feel it helped them to come forward a bit. I think the most important lesson here: line does not have to be everywhere, and sometimes less is more.


'Sarah and Isaac', Cory Jaeger-Kenat, 2017
This next work is part of my 'Hats' series, a collection of practice studies examining the texture of fabrics. I wanted to play with the concept of netting on an old-fashioned hat. Here again, in order to get the variety of lines (and shapes) I wanted, I painted the folds a darker color and revisited them again with dots of whites. Again, I have to emphasize, I did not make these lines by using a thin brush. I created shapes of darker color, then went in with lighter. One can make incredibly thin, lyrical lines this way. I have to admit that I particularly like the thick line originating at the top, contrasting with the clean sweep of a single line at the bottom left, where the netting falls over the hat.

'Roberta', Cory Jaeger-Kenat, 2017




'Turtleneck Boys', Cory Jaeger-Kenat, 2017



In 'Turtleneck Boys', the painting above, lines are thick and choppy, to convey a sense of discord, disturbance, even menace.
Celtic Goddess, Cory Jaeger-Kenat, 2003

This is a pencil drawing done way back when. This time I used a very, very sharp pencil for my contours, barely touching the surface in some parts. It gives a rather ghostly effect.


Lines have an emotional effect on us. When you think about it, the whole process of reading a book is interpreting tiny lines in print. And in a painting, lines establish style and accent.  When you draw a line, ask yourself, what is the mood I am trying to convey? There's so much that just that simple line can say--about you and the work.




Technique--Art Has Always Lived on the Edge

There is something, in my opinion, about the power of a strong edge in a painting. When I see a lyrical, powerful line in an artwork, I am reminded of an ice-skater effortlessly, yet powerfully gliding, making curling and curving impressions into ice. Sometimes, a line can make me think of a jazz solo, where a saxophone's melody line is swooping and swinging in the air. Lines can create contained passages in a work, but they also can speak and express in a non-verbal way. A distinct thick line can emphasize, or make something look strong or severe---but a thin, faint line can bring out the delicacy of a whisper, a web, or the most unspoken of thoughts. Line is poetry.

Sandro Botticelli, 'Primavera' c. 1482



At right is the classic example, shown in art classes around the world, of what I am talking about. In this Renaissance wonder by Botticelli, line moves like rippling water, swirling in and out in fragile white lines from the bodies of these lovely nymphs. But look, too, at the how the lines never break, how they contour around each lady's arms, how lines demarcate the curls in their hair. We can feel the veiling surrounding their forms; it is so soft we can almost crush it in our hands, and yet the softness is emphasized even more by the hard, hard edge of white against the dark background. Although we can no longer see an actual line here, this is perhaps the most dramatic line of all...where light meets dark. Can you see the music, the rhythm in those lines? I hear a violin when I see this painting.


Vincent Van Gogh, 'Self-Portrait' c. 1889


  





We couldn't talk about line without including Vincent Van Gogh. I look at this man's works over and over, marveling how masterfully he came to understand, through years and years of trial and error, how line is not only the building blocks of what we see, but it is also the emotion. Of course, the background, the folds in his coat, even his hair are all those thicker, passionate lines we have come to associate with Van Gogh's work. But look at the sweetly curving single line, in a subtle green tone, that outlines his brow and cheekbone. Also, those little bits inside his ear, that are all different colors. Amazing, and it is these elements, so easily overlooked, that hit our subconscious and blow our minds about his work.
 









Eduoard Manet, Railway, c. 1873
Manet is truly one of my favorites among the Impressionists. He is like a magician, master of the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't disappearing line. Look at the thick line that delineates the woman's arm from the back of her dress, and contrast that with the line, dainty as a fairy-tale that so subtly wraps around the little girl's arm, cheek, and the back of her neck. This line disappears at the lightest part of her arm, and it almost gives a visceral sense of the afternoon sunshine. Line meanders in and out of the lace at her sleeve, counterbalanced by the line on the woman's face. There is a coolness, a calmness to Manet's work, I believe brought about by his tremendous dexterity with line.

Although I am certainly not in the class of these artists, I have been told over the years that line is one of my strengths as a painter. In the next blog post, I will show how I do it in some of my own work.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

one brush stroke at a time


I began making art professionally in 1993, and I figure after 25 years (whoa!) of sitting quietly in front of an easel, I've taken a very long and loudly colored journey.  I've made hundreds of paintings, some taking months and even years to complete. I've sold a whole lot of work, and although I will never claim to be rich and famous, I know deep down without any real need for outside validation, that I am indeed very good at what I do and living exactly how I am supposed to live. This has been learned the hard way--by staggering down every wrong path until I finally stumbled onto where I belong again.


I've sipped my full share of cheap white wine at art receptions and I've seen people weep, expressing that my work touched a deep place inside them.  I've also had people earnestly seek me out to tell me how much they loathe what I do. A whole stack of my paintings are in the hands of collectors all over the United States, and a few have found their way to Australia, Canada, and even Switzerland.  And back in the day, when I was still in the conventional art system, I had piles of rejection letters, so many that I glued some of them to stretched canvas, and used them as background texture for my painting. 

I've got a lot to say, and although I hardly think my life is some sort of 'how to make it as an artist' textbook, I do think that perhaps I do have some insights on how to be a practical dreamer, on how to keep something very special given to you by the Creator alive and well in a world that would like nothing more than to stomp it out.

Topics on this blog will be in four categories: technical hints on painting, the everyday challenges of the artist, a bit of marketing, and the inspiration that can be drawn from the quotes of great artists that came before us.

I will have a new post out the last week of every month. (And if you might happen to be interested in my other great passion, which is homemaking, that blog can be found at: Ellen's Almanac.

This blog can be found at:

Right here, at Little Bits of Loudness, the blog.

Or, at  my newly revised website at Loud Colors, the art of Cory Jaeger Kenat. I am so proud of this website. I wrote every line of code myself, and the archive section really gives an overview of my career and process.

Or on my Loud Colors Facebook Page