Last week I figured out that garden signs could be — besides being a lot of fun to paint — a way to raise money to replenish my oil painting supplies. Yesterday, still contending with the aftermath of a migraine (seriously, don’t get one) I opened the patio umbrella and sawed cedar fence boards into usable sizes. I didn’t do that long, though. It was hot. The light hurt my head. OH WELL. Better today, but still slightly weird.
I learned — among other things — that the weirdness of the time does not mean the usual weirdness of life stops. There’s still plenty of that.
Any-HOO after I cut them, they get a good scrubbing in the kitchen sink because, you know, they’re cedar fence boards that have been outside for almost a decade. When they’re dry, they have a beautiful, silvery, soft surface. I have two custom orders and I hope to start one tomorrow.
Sometimes I think I’d be a better artist if I had gone to art school. Then I think, “OK, sweet cheeks. Go audit classes at the local university.” Then I Google the course catalog, see the course offering and realize (again) I’d rather die than enter a classroom again, even as a student and/or especially as a student. And I remember what it was like the semester I was an art major. It wasn’t fun or very productive except for two of the most important lessons I got in school — both from my drawing teacher, Jean Schiff. One, that I’m a painter. Two, that if you stand too close to the surface you’re working on your work will be shit (unless you’re carving a printing plate or doing silver point or something).
Otherwise, that semester was really disappointing. I badly wanted to learn how to DO things and that isn’t what I got (with the exception of Jean Schiff). It was strange because I had had to send a portfolio to the college to be accepted into the art program — and I was accepted. I thought that meant something. BUT…
I had two classes. Basic drawing and Introduction to Sculpture. The drawing class was fantastic, but the sculpture class was a bust (ha ha). We had four projects and no technical education. The teacher assumed we’d learned stuff in high school and, well, high school art was a disaster for me. My high school art teacher just plain didn’t like me, to the extent that he wouldn’t even critique my work. He dismissed it saying I had no talent and I was wasting his time. That is the antithesis of teaching. Maybe that teacher was right in his assessment, but even then the teacher’s job is to teach skills and ready the student to reach his/her highest level of potential, whatever it is. It might not be all that high, but the student has the right to discover that on his/her own.
Maybe the student will learn they have no innate abilities, and while practice makes perfect, there’s nothing more than that, and give up. Or, maybe the student will overcome his/her liabilities and do fantastic work. Maybe the student will go in a completely new direction. It’s the student’s job to discover this, not the teacher’s job to pass judgement on what the student could ever do. I think of Marc Rothko who started out attempting pretty conventional paintings (at which he didn’t succeed, IMO) and ended up putting some colors on immense canvases and making (for many) a very important statement. Do I like or understand Rothko’s work? Not at all. I’m a representational artist, but I don’t think Rothko was a “no talent, bad painter.” I just think he didn’t paint for me.
Education is a short cut to thousands of years of human culture and human skills. If each of us had to start from “Go” we wouldn’t learn all we need to learn in our lifetime. I understood somewhere in my teaching life that is what is meant by “foundation”. It’s “You’re going to need this stuff if you’re going to carry the baton forward into stuff we don’t know yet.”
I have these thoughts when I’m looking at a painting I’m working on. Would I do better work if I’d gone to art school? That leads to a whole tunnel of wondering. Usually I end up thinking that if I KNEW more I might discover less, and discovery is what I like most about painting. A lot of times with a painting — especially a big one — I’m truly afraid. But that’s part of the excitement, like a rollercoaster. I WANT my paintings to work. I KNOW there are better artists out there. I also know that, fundamentally, those paintings don’t matter to anyone but me.
You might remember the painting I began at the beginning of the pandemic that freaked me out so much that I didn’t want to paint it. It seemed to be a grim picture of a friend looking into the vast and terrifying unknown.
I started working on it again a couple of days ago.
I realized, while painting, that when you put a human being in a painting you will end up with a story. No person, no story. I saw all the directions this story could take and it was very tempting to paint a very powerful scary painting. I decided I didn’t want to.
It’s based on a photo from a moment in a March day that was really great. I called my friend to ask if she wanted to out and look for cranes with me. I picked her up in my NEW CAR and we headed out to the wildlife refuge. The cranes weren’t where I expected them to be, but I had another possible destination in mind. On the way to that second spot, we saw this amazing, immense dead cottonwood tree. My friend wanted a photo and when I saw her taking her photo, I saw the whole scene and took my photo. We continued on and ended up seeing thousands of cranes.
That’s truly one of the best things that can happen in the Big Empty. The painting is a long way from finished, but I think I like it fine, so far.
It’s a very large panel. To take a photo, I had to climb up on a step ladder.
I slept in. Till 9. I think the weirdness tires us out. I was thinking of moments in life that are just slow and beautiful in their strange way.
In my 20s I lived in a “colorful” neighborhood in Denver for a while — Capital Hill. It was a great place to live, and if I were ever to live in Denver again, I’d go back (never going back again). During that time all my creative work had to be done on weekends because I had an 8 to 5 job. One Sunday morning I got up (earlier than 9 because you do not waste weekends when you’re working) and realized I was out of water color paper. At the time I was painting with gouache and watercolor. I had the prospect of a show coming up in a couple months.
At 11, an hour before anything opened, I put my wallet in my jeans jacket and headed up my street — I lived on 12th and Marion — two blocks to Colfax Ave, one of America’s most historic streets and most colorful. I turned left. My destination, Meininger’s, an art supply store, was more than a mile away, beyond downtown a little bit.
This crazy, busy street was almost deserted. The only people anywhere were hookers and partiers straggling home from whatever wild night Saturday had been for them.
The parking lots were empty. The stores closed and shuttered. One or two proprietors were sweeping in front of their cafes preparing for noon. It was solemn, spacious, sweet. If it had a color it would be pale blue and gray. At the end of the street the distant Rocky Mountains reminded me of the transience of this moment. I slowed down. I had plenty of time to get there.
I’ve been cleaning out the “studio.” I feel precious calling it a studio when I don’t work very much and when it is a really beautiful room. Painting belongs in places like a garage, not this little pretty room with two sides of French windows.
It’s one of those somewhat awkward rooms that sometimes appear on old houses. Once upon a time, someone added to the back (this is pure conjecture) and put in a laundry room (barely a room) and pantry. On the other side of the wall they put in this pretty room. It’s off the kitchen and has no closet and no door.
Painting is messy. In Descanso I had a shed built in my yard. It was small — 8 x 8, but wonderful, perfect. NOTHING happened in there but painting. It was cool that it was away from the house, too, OK only 10 or 12 feet, but still. I was thinking of this. I could have a shed built at the dirt end of the deck. It would be really nice to come out of the shed onto the deck and garden and behind the shed? Dog’s world. Since it’s so cold here in winter and hails in summer, Bella needs shelter. I can’t take her garage. Besides, it has no real light, just one bulb hanging from the ceiling, hardly the pinnacle of painting studio design.
But I need to paint and I have two immense surfaces that barely fit in this room…. OH well. I hope this remains my biggest problem today. 🙂
I woke up this morning with two thoughts in mind. “Did it get down to below freezing last night, and, if it did, were my plant covers OK?” and “Wow, at the French Academy they actually have a book that shows what various colors ‘do’ to each other when put next to each other. That’s what art education is all about. What kind of mind would put that together? And how could anyone read it without losing their mind? And I think I’m an artist? Has the meaning of being an artist changed?”
I don’t know if it got down to freezing last night because Li Bai, Tu Fu and Li Ho are all fine this morning as are the Golden Gua attending them. The little tomatoes are fine, too. Paper sacks work well. I also made bags out of bubble wrap that worked great as well.
A few weeks ago I watched Waldemar Januszczak’s series on the Impressionists. I liked it a lot. One of the paintings (and artists) he talked about was George Seurat. When I was a young person I thought Seurat’s paintings were stupid. Just “head” paintings, no “feeling.” Then, in my late 20s on a bizarre trip to Chicago I saw Sunday Afternoon at the Grand Jatte at the Chicago Art Institute. I don’t know what Seurat was, but that painting is a force. Still, I do not know why anyone would want to paint tiny dots. This is truly an intellectual tour de force. I happen to love the painting, but I would lose my mind if I undertook such a thing, even 1 x 2 inches of that.
I woke up thinking about Januszczak’s questioning an old guy, a professor, at the French Academy about the book he was holding. It was fold-out page after fold-out page of dots. “This is where Seurat got the idea, right?”
The old guy dismissed Januszczak’s questions over and over. It was clear Januszczak was going to believe what he wanted, and the French art scholar was going to look down his nose. I felt I could read that scholar’s mind (I couldn’t), and it was thinking, “Zat is not what ze art is about, you English Pig Dog! I spit in your general direction!” Was the French professor showing disdain for Seurat or Januszczak, or was that just the guy he IS? TV documentaries don’t allow deep looks into the psyches of the people who show up for 3 minutes and vanish.
It’s true that in earlier times being an artist was a job. Public spaces were usually elaborately painted with murals. Painters’ studios bid on contracts. To get the best contracts, a studio had to have a stable of skillful painters who could be depended on to do what they were told. The skills of painting at the time — and forever — were like the skills of any profession.
Januszczak’s discussion of the Impressionists stresses their rebellion from the Academy, their determination to paint what they actually SAW. Their rebellion (as Januszczak explained it) took the shape of painting the world around them rather than the idealized and often mythological subjects that were shown at the academy exhibits — trains vs. Aphrodite . The paintings favored by the Academy were completely different from those the Impressionists were doing. Many were large, smooth, mural-paintings that might hang in public spaces. I don’t know if they reflected, confirmed or determined the taste of the time. I do know that the group of painters — Monet, Degas, et. al — the blossoming of Impressionism — changed the world’s understanding of painting forever.
I started out an art major. It didn’t last long for a couple of reasons, mostly money. My mom was supplying my pocket cash at school where I, otherwise, had a full ride. Art is an expensive major, and she didn’t want me to major in art. Also, I didn’t have any confidence. My high school art teacher really disliked ME and didn’t even look at my work. He was a GREAT teacher to a lot of my classmates, but not to me. I don’t know why. When I became a teacher myself, I took that lesson with me, realizing there would be students I didn’t like. There were very few, as it turned out.
I didn’t understand the technique part of art studies. Even now I don’t think I do. I showed a painting to a friend who has more training, and she dismissed it because the horizon cut the painting in half. That’s a “no-no” — I know that, but when I looked at the scene, at the painting, I saw the line somewhere else. For some reason, for me, the line is below the river but it is, actually, for most people just below the background trees.
I also realized I break most of my paintings in the center of the “canvas” even though I “know” better.
I wondered if I went to school if I would become a better painter. That’s when I realized I’m deeply suspicious about school. Strange for a teacher, right?
(featured photo: detail from Sunday Afternoon on the Grand Jatte by George Seurat)
Long long ago in a faraway land a young woman wanted to find herself. “I have to find myself,” she told everyone. That was cool because back in those days everyone else was trying to find themselves.
It was amazing how many people were lost back then, but, whatev’…
So in the process of finding herself she set out into the world not knowing that she would get to know herself by what she did in the actual world. As she bumped around, OK, bumped and banged around, she didn’t feel like she was getting anywhere. She let the wrong ones in and kept the right ones out over and over.
Once in a while she managed to do something that was in harmony with her nature, but ultimately the tug-o-war reasserted itself, and she was back in the dark. Then, through a series of very crazy events covering the better (“better” is questionable) part of a five years, she had a complete nervous breakdown, a major depressive crisis. She was told not to come to work, put on disability and sent to a therapist who gave her the DSM-IV.
The therapist sent her to a shrink and told her not to drive as she was a danger to herself and others. Luckily (luck has two sides, right?) she wasn’t living alone. Life was just dark for her in those days. The hole in which she found herself was covered with a perpetually gray sky. Black fingers of dead grass and dry branches reached across the hole. Some days her roommate almost had to drag her out of bed. Sometimes the smallest life stress would cause her to pass out.
The big challenge was that she had no insurance, and it took weeks to find a shrink who would take her without it. Without a shrink, she couldn’t get the antidepressant the therapist told her she needed. Finally she found one.
Getting PROZAC was fairly challenging and involved many trips to Tijuana to pharmacies on the border. It was cheaper there. No insurance, remember?
She read Listening to Prozac and puzzled over the fact that some people would rather be a danger to themselves and other than to lose “themselves.” She knew she wasn’t THIS, but what was she? She got more useful information from Touched with Fire. Years later she wrote one of the two fan letters in her life to this book’s author, Kay Redfield Jamison.
As the PROZAC began to work, she started drawing and painting and thinking. The climb out was slow and interesting. The morning she got up on her own and washed the dishes felt like a triumph (was a triumph). “This is great,” she thought.
What she didn’t know is that she had found herself.
“Don’t be afraid of falling backward into a bottomless pit. There is nothing to fall into. You’re in it and of it and one day, if you persist, you will be it.” Henry Miller, Nexus
Normal life attempted to begin, again, and she returned to work that fall. As she walked down the hallway to her classroom, her co-workers stood back against the walls, and one of them said, barely under his breath, “Lazarus!” The stigma of mental illness? It was as if the thirteen years of sanity (was it really?) and all the contributions she had made to the school had never happened. Little by little her hours were cut. It became almost impossible to make the ends of the month meet. The credit union threatened foreclosure which she staved off somehow. But with her new clarity of mind, she was able to act with conviction in her own defense as she’d never been able to before.
Pulling her shit together from a breakdown had given her — or revealed to her — power she didn’t know she had. The next few years were rough financially but at least she wasn’t lost any more. In case you’re looking within, hoping to find yourself, don’t. Actions speak louder than words. We know our friends by what they do. Same with the self.
Several years ago I was at the Getty Museum in LA looking at an exhibit of medieval books of hours. The raison d’être for the exhibit was the 14th century Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berrythat had traveled from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Along with the exhibit of books was an exhibit of pigment, but I’ll refrain from another rhapsody in THAT direction. 😉
A book of hours, “…derives from the practice of reading certain prayers and devotions at the different ‘hours’ of the day.” Not a literal hour (as we think of it) as back in those days time was not measured as we measure it now, in sixty minute increments, but a space of time “…allotted either to business or religious duties.”
Books of hours that belonged to nobility — such as the Tres Riches Heures — are elaborately decorated. Others are worn, plain, well-thumbed and simple. These books are small enough for a person to put in his/her pocket; pouch hanging from a cord worn around the waist. General literacy in the Middle Ages was higher than we usually give them credit for.
In the Getty exhibit, some of the books were intact. Some were just loose pages. All of them were in glass cases. Many of the pictures depict life as it was at the time the books were painted — agricultural scenes frequently illuminate the passing seasons. The little books could give their owners a sense of order in the universe, calm and hope in the unpredictable storms of human life.
Most of the paintings are of moments in the life of Christ, important moments from scripture, the lives (and, more often, deaths) of the various saints.
One of the pictures in the exhibit — a loose page, part of the Getty’s own collection — was of a man sneezing. All the people around him looked at him in fear and were leaning away from him.
The first symptom of the plague was said to be sneezing. “Bless you!” probably accompanied by the sign of the cross, a kind of anticipatory last rites.
The 14th century was the first known epidemic of bubonic plague in Europe. Paleoarcheologists now know that there were earlier bubonic plague events, but the 14th century was unique in that Europe’s population exploded in the 13th century, and people were writing down their history.
*Books of Hours, Phaidon Press, 1996 — a beautiful small semi-replica of a book of hours that contains hundreds of pictures from various books of hours from the 13th — 16th centuries.
Every time I paint, I paint a masterpiece. It’s true. I am completely in love with most of my paintings as I’m painting one and right after I finish it. Then, with few exceptions, I’m not in love with it any more. Sometimes I’m on to the next one, sometimes not.
Maybe the reason I’m not a “master” is because I never got serious about painting. The pity there is that I’m not good at a lot of things and I approach the surface not knowing what’s going to happen. Maybe no artist knows what’s going to happen.
There’s a wildlife artist whose work I like very much, Greg Beecham. His work is amazing. He offers lessons — I’d like to learn some things about his technique. I’m pretty sure he uses glazes, something I’d like to try, but haven’t figured out. I watched a segment of one of his lessons and what intrigued me wasn’t him, what he was saying, or how he was painting, but how he’d literally drawn everything onto the painting surface somehow. It resembled the surface of a paint-by-number kit from back in the day.
When I approach the surface, it’s with colored pencils. Depending on the painting I’m imagining, I might have a small version in water color like this one for a BIG painting I started two years ago and that now overwhelms me. Usually I just block in main areas of color and that’s it for “drawing.”
Sometimes I draw elements of the painting and then take my painting from the drawing, but I don’t normally draw much on the painting surface. In my mind there’s a difference between a drawing and a painting. I think most artists have their ‘approach.”
I drew this painting on an envelope at a conference. There are a lot of strange things in this painting. First, I painted it in California but it is a painting of the San Luis Valley down to the contour line of the San Juans as you see them from the 160 between Monte Vista and Alamosa, pure accident. Second, it was inspired by the stranger than fiction tale of having written about my own family in Savior without knowing it at the time. When I did genealogical research later and discovered that, I realized that all I’m ever going to find as a writer is something about myself and the entire planet is an immense graveyard of bones and stories.
I integrated a quotation from Goethe as the bottom strata of the land where “I” am digging. It says: “How all in a single whole doth weave, one in the other works and lives.” This painting hangs in my living room along with another that is more mysterious, even to me.
I didn’t fully understand this painting until I’d lived here for a year. I painted it in California few years before I moved. It began as a painting for my stepson and his wife, a street scene of New York I started in oils and realized it would be better as a watercolor. Quite a distance from one to the other…
My paintings — for me — fall into two categories. Personal paintings and landscapes. Only one landscape has crossed the line a little bit.
I don’t have — for myself — an identity as an artist. It would take more painting for me to figure that out. Mostly I experiment and play.
In school, I got encouragement from some teachers and outright discouragement from others. Over the course of my life, what this gave me was freedom. I didn’t even try to make a living as an artist. I didn’t believe I could, I understood the competition and the difficulty, and art went into the “garage,” the “shed,” and now the back room. It’s good that it did. Most of us are not going to be “great artists.” I’ve had some work hang in juried shows and sold most of my bigger paintings which is good because they take up space, but I think the best I can do is enjoy painting.