Sunday, March 29, 2009

Thinking Art Outside the Studio

On Saturday I went up to Saco, Maine to deliver work for the show that New England Wax is having there (Heat Stroke, April 3 to May 30). My friend, Sue Katz, was kind enough to drive us, work by the two of us and by fellow Western Mass. Waxer, Deborah Kruger, in her spacious vehicle, which barely fit all the work we brought. The drive was 160+ miles or 3 1/4 hours each way from Amherst, so it was a long day. I left home at 7:30 a.m. and didn't return until after 7 p.m.

The best part of the day for me was the loooong chat about art that Sue and I had coming and going plus the talk at lunch with a few friends from New England Wax.

Left to right: Lynette Haggard, Kim Bernard, Sue Katz, Kellie Weeks, Greg Wright. (A shout out to Kellie and Greg - diligent Art in the Studio readers!)

One of Greg's paintings was chosen to be the predominant image of three on the show card and then selected to appear on the show poster and flag outside the museum. (Greg Wright: Congregation IV, 2007, encaustic on panel, 14"x14".) This work is typical of Greg's intricate and engaging style of painting, and at lunch we discussed where these forms came from (see below).

Children's Art Show at Saco Museum

Before I get into discussing some of our art conversations and ideas, I just want to mention how impressive the show of children's art was that the Saco Museum had mounted. It was a collaborative installation by area art teachers and a mind-boggling experience to step into the very large back room of the Museum that was just covered with colorful pieces. This was work by Saco-Dayton K-8 students in conjunction with National Youth Art Month.

These photoes only show two sides of the room and don't convey the overwhelming power of multiples demonstrating the various techniques being taught in the schools. I wish I had had time to examine the work more closely.

Were these self portraits? Sometimes I also vizualize myself with a blue nose.

My favorite exercises in this show were the half-and-half portraits (I'm sure there's a more technical art teacher name for this) where the student cuts in half a black and white portrait of someone and then paints the other half of the face. This is such an intriguing idea.
I don't usually look at children's art, not having any little ones of my own, but this was a lot of fun. I hope these art programs don't get cut so that these kids can continue to be excited about creating things.

Art Conversations and the Finer Things
Of course it's impossible to recap 12 hours' worth of art talk, but some of the things discussed included the talk Sue is preparing for the encaustic conference, called "What’s the Big Idea? Discussing Meaning in Our Own Art." Sue will deliver a PowerPoint presentation and then lead a discussion on ideas and processes that generate and propel works. She has been researching for the presentation by interviewing artists about their work and by reading various critics, writers and artists. The discussion of how we make art and what we think about before, during and after art-making continued for some hours and ranged widely.

It continued into lunch, where we talked about why this topic is especially important to artists who paint with encaustic, and here are some reasons why: our medium is new and becoming widely popularized, the technical aspects can be difficult to master and sometimes techniques alone drive works, the medium is popularly misunderstood and misused and, just like any medium, it is used to carry out the intentions of the artist whether the artist formally acknowledges those intentions or not. Sue's talk is intended to address those intentions and get artists to develop and focus on them.

Kim, who is currently in grad school, spoke about how much ideas drive the discussions and critiques of her fellow students and inspire their creation of art. She said that such focus was having a great affect on her own work and causing it to change. A radical change in approach is difficult for artists who have gallery representation, where artists are expected to stick to one consistent look, but we all thought that in the current market, where art sales and representation are so badly affected, there was more room for experimentation and change of style. After all, if nothing is selling, artists can do what they like because sales are not driving their work. We saw this as a good thing in the long run although difficult in the near term.

Then the talk ranged to what inspired us and/or what got us started making art. Some examples: Greg worked as a hair stylist for years. and if you know that, you realize those intricate forms in his work may be related to hair as much as landscape, light or water; Kim's work is inspired by movement and body work and going even more in that direction; I began painting pretty late in life because of the blue shadows I saw on snow and the color I just had to capture; a lot of Sue's work relates to squares doubled into rectangles, as inspired by tatami mats. Kellie told us that her work was full of stories and inspired by them. Lynette said that she was going to take some time in her studio to develop more focus on her work and see what evolved.

Our conversations were fun and inspiring and created bonds of understanding and empathy among us. What's better than a group of artists getting together and talking about art? Not much in my opinion. It's one of the finer things in life.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Round Up

Past Reclaimed

I was rummaging around in the studio yesterday and came across a little box inside a box that I had packed when I moved my studio back in 2006. My old studio in Ashfield was way out in the country and over-run with mice, so when I packed up a box, I sealed it and got it the hell out of there before Mickey and Minnie could get in it and leave all their turdy calling cards. Anyway, the little box within a box that I found contained artist postcards I had collected over a period of time and a few small mementos that I kept around the studio. One of those things was a framed card I had received from my dear friend and drinking buddy, Ellie, now long dead.

This card meant a lot to me because this is what my mother should have said instead of a lot of other instructions she gave me, such as, "Sit like a lady," "Don't use that F word", etc. So I was glad to find the card - although I did not realize I was missing it.

Progress Report

I'm still plugging along on that Rothko book. It feels like a life sentence, and only now is it starting to get a little interesting, about page 195 or so, where New York has taken over from Europe after WWII and started to be an art center and all the museums are being established. Rothko still hasn't started making the abstractions he became renowned for, but he's getting there. This author analyzes and describes in agonizing detail nearly every painting Rothko made in his Expressionist and Surrealist phases. Man, I hope nobody ever does that to my work. Reading those descriptions is usually when I nod off. How soporific!

Cable Ready

Yesterday we had an outage of the Verizon internet system, and that finally prompted me to make the switch to cable internet. I'm not so sure that it's all that much faster - although it's supposed to be - but at least it will work after a power outage without me having to reset it as I did with Verizon.

But, the good news is that I went for the expanded cable television. OK, I admit it, I'm a TV junkie. Just set me down in front of that box and I'm hooked. We've been struggling along with basic cable since shortly after we arrived, and we only had 10 or 12 channels. And of those, about five were worthless, so it's basically been the three networks, two public TV channels and the local access that airs Gay USA News when it remembers to turn on the feed on Friday nights. Now we're back again with all those expanded choices so we can see:

Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, on Food Network

Rachel Maddow on MSNBC (but with glasses, hair and makeup)

Cesar Millan (left) and Daddy (right) on National Geographic

And, of course, Jon Stewart, on Comedy Central.

Wow, how have I stood it this long? Don't look for much art coming out of the studio. You'll find me, feet up, munching bon-bons on the couch, and eyes glued.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Valley of Indecision

Sorry I've been MIA for a few days. Life got in the way.

But I've been in the studio working a bit. And here's a new diptych that I'm calling "Masquerade." It's encaustic with roots and beads on two panels - each panel 16"x16"x1.5". These are panels that I made myself. I think I should reshoot the photo because the panels look distorted. They really are square - honest!

My friend Sue told me that I should try for more color subtlety but that's a lost cause. These colors are subtle enough for me although I did have trouble with them because of the warm palette. I'm much more comfortable with cool colors.

So here's my problem: I made another diptych in orange, etc. that I really wasn't happy with. It's probably too much information, but here are three versions:

Version 1 - encaustic with roots, toothpicks and leaves. I didn't really think that the two panels had enough connection except for the color, so I made...

Version 2 - in which I turned the first panel on its side and extended the lines. But I thought this made it look too much like balloons or boobs, so then I...

Version 3 - turned the panels around. But then I thought it was kind of boring and not really like my work.

So, reader, I scraped.

That's the wonderful thing about encaustic - just heat it up and scrape away. All your indecisions, bad decisions, and misdirections just end up in balls of wax and you start over with nice, clean panels.

My Bowl of Balls in the display window at my last show.

I'll let you know how things turn out with Version 4.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring in New England

It's spring all over today - the sun's over the equator and all's right with the world. In New England, especially out here in western Massachusetts almost in the Berkshires and not all that far from Albany, NY, spring comes in with temps in the 20s. It's not balmy enough to go out without a hat and gloves unless you want cold ears and fingers.

Despite the lawn chairs looking hopeful over there, patches of snow are still hanging on in the shady spots, and ice covers the birdbath.

The appropriate footwear is not sandals but muck boots. The only reason that this boot is not mucky is that the ground is still frozen this morning.

But spring has a way of slowly creeping up before it bursts out.

Iris are greening up in the fishpond.

Although ice covers the surface of the water, it will thaw once the sun has been on it for a while.

Snowdrop bulbs have broken through the leaf cover around Bobby Buddha.

Bobby survives although he had a tough winter and suffered damage to his head where a couple of chunks of concrete broke off.

There is still snow amid the raised beds.

But the garden area is pretty clear overall.

The compost bins stand ready although mostly still frozen. (From the left: collected leaves, current compost, compost made last summer/fall to be spread this spring.)

From the back of the yard, things look pretty good...

especially with a couple of doggy boys added in.

And the pansies we bought the other day survived a frosty night outside and will be perked up again by noontime - the most hopeful sign of spring.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Presence of Absence

While stumbling around on the internet, I came across this description of Philip Guston's studio after his death, as described by his daughter, Musa Mayer. It was so poignant that I wanted to share it. It's from the end of her book, "Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston." I had read her book a few years ago and found it absorbing and very well written. I recommend it both to those who like Guston's work and those who just like memoirs and/or biographies - especially of artists.

Philip Guston: Talking, 78"x68", 1979

"Beside the glass double doors to my father's studio is a green curtain for privacy, so that no one would walk in on Philip when he was working. Though no one is here but me, I find myself instinctively pulling the curtain across the entryway, hearing the brass rings scrape along the metal rod. Still protecting him. I open the curtain again, reach for the lights, and pause for a second look. The studio walls are bare, with only ladders and light fixtures leaning up against them to disturb their white expanse. Big wooden packing crates for a European exhibition now past, built sturdy as furniture and lined with green felt, are stacked like giant blocks. Stretched, primed canvases stand side by side, waiting. For a year or two, we cleaned in here, but now everything carries a fine coat of pale blond dust. We call this room 'the studio,' but it is no one's studio now. No longer steeped in sadness, it is too anonymous for that. It is no longer his. It's just a room, an empty room. It could be anyone's space, with its flat lights, its silences, its dust. I listen to the high whine of the fluorescent lights, the beating of the silence behind. So this is what death is really, I think, what it becomes. Beyond the pain of loss, there is finally only this sense of absence. The night quiet. And the way that memories blur, running into one another in the dilution of time."

Monday, March 16, 2009

More Little Guys and a Book

Here are the other three little Island Dreams.

Island Dream 4, encaustic and beads, 6"x6"

Island Dream 5, encautic and beads, 6"x6"

Island Dream 6, encaustic and beads, 6"x6"

I do love those blues and greens. They are my natural palette. Of course black is my biggest love...but then there's orange and don't forget red, etc., etc.

Reading Matter

I've always been a dedicated reader, first fascinated by fiction, then developing an attraction to history and biography as I've grown older. Artists' bios particularly fascinate me because I love to find out how they manage all the components in their lives and how they continue to create and develop over the years.

Now I'm reading a biography of Mark Rothko written by James Breslin (not Jimmy Breslin). His early life reminds me of Philip Guston's - Russian Jewish immigrant parents, raised on the West Coast but came East to make art, no real art education, Americanized name, etc. Rothko, however, was born in Russia (Guston born in Canada) and emigrated to America as a boy, going straight to Portland, Oregon where the family had relatives.

What actually put me on to reading about Rothko was finding out for a post that one of the Merkins was supposed to be the largest private collector of Rothko's work. J. Daniel Merkin, dethroned financial wizard, has in his collection two 9x15-foot studies for the Four Seasons murals that Rothko never sold to the Four Seasons. The real murals are owned by the National Gallery. What was the story about these huge paintings that weren't sold to the Four Seasons, I wondered. So when I came across this book on Amazon, I bought it used for half price. The only problem is that it's a big, heavy hardbound book. I read it in bed and one of these mornings I'm going to wake up with a black eye from the book hitting me in the face when I doze off. (That's one big advantage to Kindle - it can't crush you when you hit yourself in the face with it.)

So, I'll post more about Rothko when I finish the book - if ever.

Meanwhile, I haven't been reading my usual magazines so I have no exposes or cause celebres or gossip. Boring, but that's the way it goes sometimes.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

New Encaustic Paintings

Strange and ironic, but with all those nice panels I've been building, I decided to work first on six little 6"x6" panels that I had bought some time ago and had kicking around the studio (literally). I was kind of pressed for time with all the woodworking I had to do but desperate to melt some wax and paint. I thought I could work up the little panels pretty quickly. And what do you know, I did!

Island Dreams 1, encaustic and beads on panel, 6"x6"

I've never worked this small but it was fun. I kept my palette to the blues and greens of the last work I did (plus black and white) because those paints were on the griddle and incorporated some beads that Lynette gave me when she cleaned out her studio. Here are some images of the little guys. I'm not saying that this is their final version, but for a first pass, I'm pleased. They reminded me of Pacific islands when I painted them, so I named them Island Dreams.

Island Dreams 2, encaustic and beads on panel, 6" x 6"

I'll just show you three for now.

Island Dreams 3, encaustic and beads on panel, 6" x 6"

Encaustic News

(1) On the subject of encaustic, I heard today from Gwen Plunkett, who writes the Ancient Vessel blog and is a member of Texas Wax. I know her from the encaustic conference. She also has another blog - Bits and Pieces - where she has posted a lot of detailed information about making encaustic medium, making and/or buying panels and referrals to books about painting with encaustic. She also linked to my post(s) about building panels and using power tools.

(2) Approaching soon: the deadline for Beauty and Its Opposites, the conference show to be juried by Nick Carpasso, senior curator at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, MA. CDs of images have to be received in Beverly, MA by April 1st. You can download the prospectus and entry form on the conference blog.

(3) Also approaching are spring shows by New England Wax: Heat Stroke at the Saco Museum in Saco, ME (April 3 to May 30 - juried by Katherine French, Director of the Danforth Museum) and Ancient Medium, N.E.W. Terrain at the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, MA (May 17 to September 6 - juried by Craig Bloodgood, Contemporary Curator at the museum). Note that the Duxbury show will be up during the encaustic conference and we may try to arrange a daytrip to the museum.

(4) And 'tis the season for submitting proposals to various venues for shows in 2010.

Such a lot for artists to do. However do we manage?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Road to Infinity

Yesterday I did something that I've been wanting to do for a long time. You know when you're driving along a highway and it's a beautiful sunny day and the road stretches out in front of you and it seems to go on forever, to, like, infinity? I've been wanting to capture that feeling in a photo. It's the Great American Dream of the Highway with Dinah Shore singing, "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet..." and topping it off with a big wet smack. What could be better?

As bad as texting while driving is, photographing while driving is probably even worse and not recommended. (Don't try this in a car.) I didn't abuse it and luckily didn't crash, but I was driven to it (so to speak) by my desire to take photos for the weather blog that I've been participating in for the past nearly two weeks. I've been walking around a lot with my camera in an effort to capture things and post them to my partners in Sweden. It's really made me see more clearly and deeply (I am a camera.) and has been an enriching process. I'll miss it when it's over after this weekend. And then move on to the next thing, I suppose.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

In My Life

1. My Work

It's been so long since I posted any pix of my paintings, that I'm starting right off by showing one.

This is "Antares" from 2007, encaustic and mixed media on panel, 12" x 36". It hangs in my living room on a deep turquoise wall and I pass by it all the time on my way upstairs. I always get a whiff of beeswax as I go by. I've never shown it anywhere outside of home.

2. Death of a Giant

This huge maple tree grew in the yard of my next door neighbor until she had it cut down this week because she thought it threatened her house. The base must be about five feet across. It took three guys a day and a half to cut up just this part of the trunk that was left after they had already worked on cutting down the tree for more than two days. I tried to find out something about the relationship between tree diameter and age, but couldn't, although it does seem that the tree must have been there for a very long time. It seems a shame to bring down this big specimen when we need all the carbon dioxide exchange we can get. On the brighter side, our yard gets more sun and our neighbor's house is likely to be a lot hotter this summer.

3. Dealing with my mother's aging

My mother is now 92 and lives alone in an elderly housing complex near Cape Cod. About a year and a half or two years ago she stopped driving when her car broke down, and then she gradually stopped going out at all. She has deteriorated since then both mentally and physically but has been very resistant to receiving any help. After battling with her and then insisting, I have been able to get someone in to do some cleaning and assist her with bathing and changing her clothes, but now the situation is coming to a head. I should mention that she takes no medicine - rarely even an aspirin - and is apparently healthy - or as healthy as a 92-year-old can be.

(My mother, center, a couple of years ago eating shrimp and talking to my cousin at a party.)

The problem now is that I have to take her to the doctor next week and I had to announce this to her today. We had severe drama for quite a long while, but I believe I prevailed. Just in case, I'm bringing my brother with me next week to help. He'll have to manipulate the wheelchair we'll rent anyway.

All this is so stressful and brings up so many emotions that I think I'd better go to the doctor, too. Maybe I can get a twofer rate next week.

Wood Working

The woodworking (panel making) is progressing nicely. Now I have 8 panels done: 3 - 12x24 and 5 - 16x16. Today I ordered a sheet of birch ply cut by the lumberyard into 10 - 16x16 pieces (exact) with 3 leftovers: one piece 16x48 (approx) plus two 16x40 (approx). I also got 8 pieces of 1x4x8 to make the cradled backs. This will amount to 128 feet of 1 1/2" backs. This whole thing cost me $113 - a lot less than finished panels cost, even the cheap ones.

But beyond cost savings, there is a certain satisfaction in making the panels. I like the feeling of accomplishment in seeing them multiply, even if my carpentry leaves a little to be desired. I hope I get better with practice.

I'm a little behind the curve in basic knowledge because a long, long time ago when I went to high school, the girls went to home ec and the boys went to shop. I, on the other hand, being in the "business curiculum" went to neither - instead, we had an extra shorthand class or something. But I think that this detriment in my official learnin' in both the "boy skills" and the "girl skills" has allowed me to self school in both areas without prejudice even though I'm playing catch up.

So I'm going to show you my studio in its present state. You may wonder how the hell I work in there - and so do I sometimes. But here is the woodworking end of my studio right now. This is the end that I don't mind getting sawdust in because everything is wrapped or too far away to get damaged (I hope). (That black table with the wood on it may look fancy but I found the base in a dumpster, cut down a piece of old plywood for the top and hit the whole thing with glossy black paint. Voila!)

I have my table saw (this is the actual thing). See that dumb black bag underneath that's supposed to collect sawdust? And doesn't really.

Then I have my trusty chopsaw for cutting the lengths of wood for the cradle backs.

And here is the push stick I made for pushing wood through the table saw - impressive, huh?

These are some of the tools I use to put the panels together. Wow, a hammer and pliers! This is the table I paint my acrylic pieces on so the plastic is covered with old paint - time to replace it. It's at the point where the paint comes off on everything - including the new panels.

So there you have it. In the studio in living color, warts and all.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Power Tools

Yes, a girl's best friend - power tools. Today I was in the studio ripping boards into 1 1/2" widths to make cradled panels for painting. I finally used the table saw that spent three years in a box unassembled because I was too timid to put it together. (In fact I still didn't put it together - I got Bonnie to do it.)

The table saw is still a bit scary but I took a course with Kim Bernard that explained and demonstrated how to use three kinds of power saws to make painting panels. I was already familiar with (and owned) a chop saw and jig saw, but the table saw was a whole new ballgame. Once Kim showed us how it operated and the safety precautions to use, it became a lot more manageable to me. All I had to do then was to get Bonnie into the studio to put it together. (She's in charge of all assemblage in our house - and studio.)

The first thing I did today was to make a push stick for the table saw using my jig saw. The push stick looks like a product of unskilled labor, but it gets the job done of saving my fingers and pushing the wood through the saw to the other side.

I actually made three panels today using the lumber I ripped along with some birch plywood that I had the lumberyard cut a while back. I'm going to continue using the lumberyard to cut the plywood because they have giant saws and can make much better cuts than I can.

My table saw looks something like this except mine is a Craftsman from Sears. It was very inexpensive and came with the attached stand. I think it will do just fine for my purposes, but it does put out a hell of a lot of sawdust. It has a giant black sawdust bag under the saw (unlike this photo) that hangs all the way to the floor. I know I have it set up correctly, but maybe 20 percent of the sawdust is going into the bag and the rest is all over the floor, the saw and me. Not too efficient.

So after I ripped the lumber, I chopped it into lengths using my chop saw and then got out my trusty Makita sander - probably the most expensive power tool I've bought for the studio at around $225. It did wonders for me with the panels today - not only in smoothing out the rough edges of the panels but in erasing the errors I made at the edges where the cradle met the plywood. Sometimes either the plywood or the cradle stuck out a little too much and the sander just whisked that protrusion right out of there. OK, I'm not the world's greatest carpenter.

By the way, another arty use for the sander I've found is sanding the acrylic surface off a (heavy) piece of paper painted with thinned acrylic. The sander just leaves the stained paper behind - although it can take off too much of the surface if you're not careful. I used this sanding treatment when I wanted to paint over old acrylic paintings with encaustic but needed to remove the plasticky finish and make the surface more absorbent.

Power tools are the great gender leveler as far as I'm concerned. (I guess sculptors already know this, but it came kinda late to this painter.) No real strength is needed to use them - just skill and knowledge - something that women can easily acquire. So don't let those boys keep the tools for themselves. If they won't share, go out and get your own.