Connections

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Detail of “Fight Song,”mixed media on board, 36″ x 24”

This past weekend was the second time in as many weeks that I visited my mother and she did not know me. There are many possible reasons for this—medication, the progression of her Lewy Body Dementia, the fact that she is waking from a deep sleep.

It saddens me in many ways, but once I tell her who I am and help her connect, there is lucid conversation. When I tell her about my four-month-old grandson’s crying and tummy troubles, she remembers my brother (who died in August). Then she says: “You were no trouble, always happy.” Of course, this is not what she said while I was growing up or what she would have said a few months ago, but it is lovely to hear. I have to fight the tears because I want us to talk about happy memories, and I want to keep her connected to family as long as I can.

So how does this relate to art? I think it has to do with the layers that I texture, paint, and collage. I was reminded of this when teaching a workshop this past weekend. My paintings have so many layers, some of which I like and some of which I don’t. I may bring one to the surface and then decide I don’t like it or don’t like part of it. Or I may create a layer that is a combination of what is below and the new elements I add to the top.

Putting something new on the surface doesn’t change that initial layer; it just adds to it, making it richer, more complex.  The layers connect each idea, but allow me to focus on what is most important. Life is like that too.

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I No Longer Ask Why

“You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.” George Bernard Shaw

"Not Intended For Ground Contact," Mixed media on deep wood panel, "17 x 23"
“Not Intended For Ground Contact,” Mixed media on deep wood panel, “17 x 23”

You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.” George Bernard Shaw

 A couple years ago I a wrote asking art lovers to respond with specifics about a piece of art, not just “beautiful” or “wonderful” or any other single word adjective. Part of me would still like more, but I have decided I was wrong—wrong to ask any viewer to explain their emotions or feelings about a specific piece of work. (Let’s face it sometimes I don’t want to have to explain even to a juror what my painting is “about.”)

Instead, I am now content to just “like.” I have come to understand as one blogger Ralph Ammer puts it, “art is a mirror for artists and viewers alike.” When we as artists have put all of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions into a piece, our story is told. Our view is registered. For the viewer, the reflection begins when they stand before the piece or see it online. And often their emotions and thoughts are so personal and complex, they may feel there is yet another story to tell—or not tell.

So, I no longer ask “why.” I am just grateful that they are art lovers and that I have the opportunity through my paintings to touch someone or trigger a few thoughts.

 

 

 

 

Positive from Negative

 

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Unfinished paintings making positives using negative space.

“What do you do with everything that is cut away?” she asked Tilman, thinking now about the negative space of stone sculpture, the stone that is discarded, thinking too about how she had thrown away huge pieces of her own early life…”
from The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart.

 With both my only parent and only sibling ill, there is a lot of sadness in my life right now, weighing me down, making it hard to focus on anything—even art. But because art keeps me sane, I have turned to it in bits and pieces, usually ending up in a mess of color and movement. For days I let these paintings on paper lay around, but this past week I decided to find out what if anything was important in these painted, collaged pieces.

So I started with grey paint and the basic rules of visual composition, reminding myself that positive space was the primary focus of a picture and the negative space was the background or the space between objects. I had always thought of negative space as quiet space, but obviously less important than the positive shapes.

But the more I painted, the more I wondered: Should there really be a difference between positive and negative space in importance? Can you have one without the other? In order to tell a complete story, don’t you need both? None of the pieces that are pictured are finished or may never be, but the exercise reinforced to me how critical negative space is in my paintings and how it can highlight the positive.

 

 

 

Where Am I Going?

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“Mending Fences,” mixed media on board, 11″ x 20″
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Journal entry “Mending Fences”

 

Sometimes I just put paint on paper, moving it here or there, adding a bit of this or that. Sometimes it works out. Most of the time, not so much.

Of course, that’s not true for everyone. Plein air painters produce their best work onsite. And I’ve seen some other wonderful painters who seem to start with one element and just take those twists and turns in the road one at a time until bang—they are in New York or Los Angeles.

If I do that I’m in the middle of no where in Iowa (and yes, Iowa can be lovely), but it’s probably the middle of winter. And while it may be beautiful, it has no focus. I’m one of those artists who needs to have some idea of where they are going, just a bit of a road map. Otherwise, I wander off tract. I see that nice tree over there or perhaps a lovely lake and take a hike. I know that many artists do studies, and I’ve done a few. But the best method for me seems to be a middle ground.

I’ve found that working on ideas in my journal helps me solidify placement of elements, color, markings. With a few little things worked out, I can concentrate on the idea behind the painting and on the emotions and feelings. Hopefully, this produces better strokes, more complicated markings. Doing this also helps when I am in a period that I feel stuck. “I am working,” but because it is in a journal, “I am not exactly working.” Somehow this frees me.

This method has its drawbacks. I can’t be as spontaneous. And don’t think it doesn’t mean I won’t have to redo a painting—but it is a place to start and a way to keep on track.

So what’s your successful method?

 

Over and Over

Changing just one thing can make a difference.

Over and Over, 18" x 24", Mixed media on paper
“Over and Over,” 18″ x 24″, mixed media on paper

You know how a tune gets locked in your head, an “ear worm” they call it. I am particularly susceptible to any kind of “worm” whether a tune or a behavior. I seem to get locked into action or inaction.

I have been trying to discover how we free ourselves from repeating behavior that we know isn’t good for us, whether it is obsessing over a problem or just painting in the same way we always have. One suggestion was to change just one thing. In my yoga class the instructor often says something similar. She suggests moving the right arm out as you lift the left leg or putting the arms in front rather than behind in “child’s pose.”

I normally paint on deep wood cradles with a highly textured substrate. So I decided to paint on paper. It appears to me this one change has made me focus more on markings, which may well be a good thing.

Oh, I guess I did change two things. Instead of my classical or new age music, I listened to a bit of country. Go figure.

Perhaps you might try changing just one thing in your art or your life—or two?

Truth?

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study, 18″ x 24″, mixed media on paper

 

I read the phrase “a child’s truth” in a book recently and began to think about what it meant. Internet research detours you through a discussion of when a child begins to lie, but that’s not where I was headed. My own interest in the phrase had more to do with emotional truth. In a world where a child is seeking to connect actions and reactions, they often think they have caused an event that they had nothing to do with.

As adults we sometimes do the same. We take responsibility or blame ourselves for things that occur, but are often accidents or mere oversights. And worse, we often take credit for causing something beneficial for which at best we had very little agency.

Truth for a child is all knotted up with innocence and trust and a very “if/then” perspective of the world in which they live. It is naïve, but in my mind far less complex and far more factual than what we as adults deal with.

So truth is a grey area like so many other things, a mixture of fact and fiction, fantasy and reality, memory and illusion.

 

No Destination

borderlandwandering
“Untitled,” 16″ x 20,” mixed media collage on deep panel

The week has just started and I am tired. To say it has been difficult to concentrate on art the last few weeks is well…an understatement. Illness, my own upper respiratory infection and my elderly mother’s increasing anxiety, has consumed me.

Finding myself the bad guy is not a new role, just one that comes and goes. And no matter how you feel at the moment, you really don’t want it to return. You want all hatchets buried, all peace pipes smoked. But usually, life doesn’t work that way even with the most optimistic outlooks. To keep my own head about me, I paint.

Lately, I have been working on paper, which doesn’t create my usual amount of texture. But it still allows quite a bit, just more visual than tactile. And because there is less preparation, I can work in the moment. Luckily, most of the layers also dry a bit more quickly as well.

This one, as yet untitled, is likely part of a new series. I feel myself moving a brush, a pencil over the paper as if it is a landscape I want to explore—even though there is no definite destination.

Do we need one? Can’t we just begin a journey and see what will happen, where we will go if we follow a line?