We stayed in the Carlton Arms in New York City, and by chance, we got to see a wide variety of rooms twice: once when we needed to choose a new room because our room was needed as gallery space, and once with the New York Adventure Club tour. Since we saw more spaces than are normally available to show– the hotel cannot show rented rooms– I thought I would share them with you, with photos not included in my other Carlton Arms post. We were also privy to some myths, legends, and secrets of the hotel…
Our room had an entire quilted graphic narrative around the molding. We were actually staying inside a story. We took some time to read it, and to see how themes were reinforced around the room. By the way, it was a quiet and cozy room.
The hallway was a real marvel. It was done in the 1990s and is still beautiful. Whether or not the artist achieved fame, she created a place of lasting amazement and beauty. If I could make an artwork that made hundreds of people happy over a few decades, I would be delighted….There was one door that had a painted warning on the outside, very aggressive, with the message that a trans person had done the art inside. It was a “Beware, be afraid, yea who enter here” sign. But when you stepped in the room you entered a strange paradise.
I was reminded of our visit in Rome to the Villa Borghese, with its intersex sculptures, a favorite of the then-pope– equally beautiful, and unsettling. The hotel manager says that they try to be sensitive to the needs of the clients; this room is not necessarily recommended to those with young children. The hotel tries to give guests the choice of available rooms. Here is a secret: check in early in the day to get a choice of rooms in your price category. The staff is extremely nice and will help you find the right space. The hotel has 54 rooms in its largely unrenovated, walk-up building.
Near the lobby was a bar area that could re-morph into a hotel room with the addition or removal of the beds. The beds were very comfortable, with excellent mattresses on top of a more portable folding frame. The rooms are redone by new artists every 3-5 years or so, and displayed in a one-night only opening in March as art exhibits. The very next day they are returned to hotel rooms!
The hotel offers residencies to artists to re-do rooms, and has an annual art show to display them.
The Carlton Arms has many secrets. Since it is has been a hotel now for over 30 years, they downplay the colorful past of the SRO days (single room occupancy). So many people seem afraid to stay here, and indeed it is not for everyone. Their primary clientele is now European. Scott and I stayed in a room with a shared bath and we never needed to wait. I give it high ratings for a feeling of coziness inside a huge city. You get to live inside art itself. And there are cats too.
The Banksy on the first floor of the Carlton Arms Hotel.
The Banksy Down the Hall
I’m staying at the Carlton Arms Hotel in NYC, Gramercy. Stepping out of our first room and walking toward the shared bath, I encountered a bear politician, Elvis-Mickey, and a stick of dynamite in a ballot box. It’s the Banksy near the bathroom.
The Carlton Arms is not an art hotel; it’s a hotel for artists. Any artist can tell you that though they find a place rich and evocative, that taste is not necessarily shared by the general public. Artists love an edge. When I had a studio at the Barracks, an old naval airbase complete with a creepy overgrown bunker, I loved it. But it was quite difficult to get patrons out there, even for open studios. It was just a bit too intimidating.
Fourth floor Egyptian themed hallway, where we moved from our first floor room; the room was needed for a gallery show.
So what I’m saying is that the hotel is not for everyone, and doesn’t pretend to be. It’s in a largely unrenovated 1880s building, with 54 rooms tied up in a tangled net of pipes and architectural elements. There are two cats who will visit in your room, and astonishing art, everywhere. It’s like wandering around in a building made of artist’s neural pathways and memory banks. It is literally and metaphorically held held together by paint, a living body made of art. And so it shocks, delights, and inspires, because it is art.
One of the two or three hotel cats visits our room Sign near the street level entrance
The coffee room raccoon says hey
The hotel’s colorful past is carried forward into the future by yearly shows, where rooms are transformed into art installations, then returned to lodging spaces. The hotel staff were friendly and gracious. They allowed us to tour unoccupied rooms during a lull between checkout and check-in
First room we had, first floor near lobby Inhabitants of all species Inside a room
Magical “neon” murals that glowed, all paint. We had never seen anything quite like them.
Beauty, humor and anguish are everywhere.
Our charming “Hygge” room (my name for it) on the Egypt floor, 10D. More doileys, lace, handwork, Scandinavian style. Charm and giant cookie burgers, plus instructions on life. The top moldings are all quilted fabric art cartoons.
Our hallway. You can see me at the end
Hotel life problems
I’m not doing a travel hotel review here. I am so tired of yelp-style critiques. We love it; we are temporary dwellers in a living history. Tonight a chapter of the NY Adventure society tours here. On Thursday the latest Artbreak Hotel art installation and opening reception is happening . I’m climbing 64 stairs to our room, and I’m awed that this is still here. Also, clearly, Carlton Arms Hotel knows who the heck Banksy is. Thanks, Carlton Arms.
Anne Lamott’s latest book, Almost Everything, is a great delight, as most of her books are. She has a chapter on writing, which she says she uses as a shorthand for discussing other modes of creation. I took her at her word. What follows are her quotations, with the word writing changed to [painting], my brackets. Thank you, Anne Lamott. Have fun, and read the whole book. The chapter “Don’t Let Them Get You To Hate Them” is worth the price of admission, these days especially. My blog title refers to her classic book on writing, Bird by Bird, highly recommended.
“If you do not finish what you are [painting], you will probably not sell your [painting], although you may, for much less than what you were hoping, or deserve.”
“No one cares if you continue to [paint], so you better care, because otherwise you are doomed.”
“If you do stick with [painting], you will get better and better, and you can start to learn the important lessons: who you really are, and how all of us can live in the face of death, and how important it is to pay much better attention to life, moment by moment, which is why you are here.”
Another open studio? Another First Friday? Really? My current new project is a series of illustrated notebook pages on Dante’s Inferno and the Underworld. Not really a high demand there, unless perhaps you are a dead person of the 13th century. For years I have struggled with the ideas of supply and demand in art. I saw demand as a corrupting influence, producing Thomas Kincaid cottages, pet rocks, and social media addiction.
“What limits creativity is not the lack of good new memes (i.e., ideas, products, works of art), but the lack of interest in them. The constraint is not in the supply but in the demand.”
I know and work with so many amazing artists, most of them unfairly obscure, in my SOFA Santa Rosa neighborhood. We are everywhere, and we are creating. The supply is high. You could argue that perhaps we have saturated Sonoma County with our good work.
Csikszentmihalyi says that perhaps the limitations of creativity come from scarcity of attention for the products. “Unfortunately, most attempts to enhance creativity are focused on the supply side, which may not only not work but is likely to make life more miserable for a great number of neglected geniuses.”
He goes on to say, “But usually the necessity of ‘selling’ one’s ideas is seen as something that comes after the creative process ends and is separate from it. In the systems model, the acceptance of a new meme by the field is seen as an essential part of the creative process [my italics].
This gives me hope. I always knew there was something wrong with the neglected genius / Van Gogh model, birthing beauty into a silent or hostile void. I hope that I can joyfully enter the creative stream anywhere, either creating new art or by readying the field for it. Thanks, Mihaly.
More frequent posts
I’ll be posting several times a week now, probably. Fair warning! These messages are part of my own creative process. Later I’ll offer a monthly newsletter format.
If you’re going through an Underworld passage right now– as our whole country is– stay safe. I’ve seen and heard a lot more random racism and everyday hostility around me than usual. The decay at the top and the inaccessibility to universal health care is wearing us out.
Saltworkstudio Events and Classes 2019
SOFA Santa Rosa First Fridays 2019, 5-8 PM. Informal open studios neighborhood-wide. Find me in Backstreet Gallery, down Art Alley behind 312 South A Street, Santa Rosa, CA. Map here.
In 2014, I decided I wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago and keep a travel journal. Only problem was, I disliked sketching. I knew what a travel journal SHOULD look like…
Never in a million years could I keep an sketchbook like the ones above– the ones full of architectural detail and castles with swans floating on them, with notes in a perfect calligraphy.
I’m an abstract painter. I like big, sketching is small. I like color, and sketching is black and white. I like huge ideas, and sketching is detailed. I don’t even like reality that much, so why would I want to draw it?
I am not an expert sketcher, so please take my advice with more than a few grains of salt. But I was lucky. I ended up keeping an illustrated travel journal that has brought me and others pleasure over the years. As I walked the Camino, this scratchy, amateur sketchbook got me free food, wine and rooms, acted as a thank-you note, and bailed me out of trouble a few times. It got worn and dirty occasionally, as I did. It also let me keep “secrets of the Camino” that eventually became painting and printmaking series, though I didn’t know it at the time. And I normally didn’t draw from photos, drawing what was in front of me instead. I wasn’t a purist about it, but I wanted to draw my moment, adding memories of the day and figments of my imagination.
Tip #1: Practice before you go
Yes, you non-drawer, you do have to practice a little. Why would you suddenly start doing something on a trip when you don’t ever do in everyday life? Everyone can draw and paint. You did as a kid. So get a kid drawing book that shows you how to make firemen and hot wheels and dinosaurs, or get Art Before Breakfast by Danny Gregory, or a book on anime or doodling. Take a course from a local sketching expert like Susan Cornelis if you can, or find your branch of Urban Sketchers. Find the size kind of sketchbook you feel comfortable with– but with blank pages. Do not use a fancy sketchbook that makes you feel like you have already screwed it up just by looking at it. It should feel friendly! Make stick figures or cartoons. Spill ink and paint on it. Don’t get too serious. Draw your Starbucks. Don’t show anyone. Take an online course from Sketchbook Skool. Do this for a few weeks to a few months before you go.
Full disclosure: here are notebook pages done as practice before I left for Spain.
Tip #2: Use your words and your little scraps of things. Use what you got.
Use your words and the paper travel media which you collect, cut into pieces. Stick on train tickets. Get places to rubber stamp your notebook, then draw later. The key to an illustrated travel journal is words plus images done NOW, not later. You can’t plan what the pages will look like in advance, but you can enter the moment and use everything in front of you. Don’t be a purist and don’t try to have each page make sense. That is your perfectionism speaking, and it will stop your daily travel journaling like an anvil dropping on the head of Wile E. Coyote . I did this page with a plate of paella in front of me, looking at a Roman arch hung with hats. Even if you did only collage and crayons and words, no drawing at all, it might be more amazing than you could imagine when you started.
Tip #3: Do it daily and do it anywhere.
I did this one waiting at a fountain for it to be time to see a movie at night. Please do not wait to do your travel journal page for the day. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. This page had a healing quality for me, as I was stuck in this town as my foot mended from a minor– but threatening to become major– blister infection. I did work on the train and in cafes. I am not a dedicated urban sketcher, braving snow and balancing on stools. These pages do not capture a “thing,”; they address time, space and emotion. They are not as good if you wait for the “right” scene or right place to draw or even a better idea. Do it now, with your crummy view and the mediocre idea in front of you. “If you’re not with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
I kept an authentic, daily travel journal as a pilgrim in Spain, carrying a tiny bundle of sketching materials. You can see some of my pilgrim sketches here, or read my Camino de Santiago story.
Upcoming Events and Classes
Sunday, November 4, 201810:00 AM, Lecture/Slideshow for SketchKon Art Convention,Westin Hotel Pasadena, Pasadena, CA . “Inner Reportage:” How a Lousy Sketcher and Lazy Hiker Drew an Illustrated Travel Journal on the Camino de Santiago Pilgrim Way.”
Saturday, November 17, 2018, 5-9:30 PM- SOFA Winterblast. SOFA Arts District on South A Street, Santa Rosa, CA. This locally-famous free art and street festival includes a parade with decorated couches. Follow updates on Facebook. This year, Saltworkstudio will feature work by Tim Haworth as well as my paintings.
First Friday, December 7, 2018, 5-8 PM, Ring the Bells, an informal holiday event. Backstreet Gallery, SOFA Arts District, South A Street, Santa Rosa. Bring your own chimes and bells to ring as you walk through winter studios to enjoy hot cider and live music. The artist Karina Nishi Marcus will have work on display as my guest.
[About Lascaux cave paintings, Paleolithic inspiration, and my abstract painting process.]
Once in a while we are lucky enough to create a painting that somehow is a little bigger than we are. This painting, A History of Home, was that for me. I want to take the time here to let the painting tell her story, her history of coming into existence.
It’s sometimes difficult for an artist to really explain what went into a particular painting. In these days of marketing, the emphasis is on the “elevator speech,” a short, catchy, 5-second summary. What a nightmare– trapped in an elevator and having to give a speech! I won’t be doing any “elevator speeches” any more, in my studio or anywhere else. Life is too short to waste it on the superficial. This will be a wandering journey, like the entries to painted caves.
The second painting of a triptych, I envisioned painting a series of abstract “maps,” entries to a colored world of cave and imagination. In this one, we have begun to enter the painted caves, specifically Lascaux cave. We stand at the threshold. It is a map of dreamtime, perhaps similar to Australian ritual paintings that mark imagined geographies mixed with “real” landmarks.
It fascinates me that parts of the painted caverns are actually called “galleries.” They may have been our first cathedrals: most were not inhabited. I am often inspired by the maps of the passages of the caves, and their abstract forms that are very unlike maps of the daytime world. Some of the marks in the painting feel like one of these “gallery maps” to me.
I really love the line drawings the earliest modern archaeologists did as reproductions of the paintings. Because photography was more primitive at the turn of the century, most archaeologists were adept at sketching artifacts and paintings. Almost all archaeologists who were allowed to enter the caves were male, of course. The most famous was “The Pope of Prehistory,” Henri Breuil. He did the most amazing drawings of cave paintings and petroglyphs from around the world.
I’ve spent a lot of time, literally many years, seeking out books with Henri Breuil’s drawings in dusty shops in so I could own some of his reproductions, with little success. I think what was “drawing” me was the beauty of the originals, but also a fascination of entering the world of the caves through transcribing the marks and animals by hand.
On the other hand, so to speak, I didn’t want to do reproductions of cave animals, no matter how compelling and beautiful. The caves themselves show centuries, perhaps millennia, of overwriting– animal on top of animal, elaborations and erasures, adaptions, handprints, and abstract graphic marks that were most likely a symbolic language. Generations of hands, eyes, pigments, footprints, erosion, stalactites, mud and flickering lights. Generations of whatever went on in these deep galleries. I wanted that. I wanted to enter that process, the one that started 35,000 years ago and is still going on today.
Back to caves, cave paintings, and my painting. After a trip in the late 1990’s to the Grotta del Genovese on the island of Levanzo, in the Egadi islands off the coast of Sicily— where I was led (by a genuine small hunchbacked cave keeper!) to the caverns with paleolithic paintings– I began to wonder why we have so few modern records of women scholars and archaeologists visiting European caves. (I would love to revisit this island: just look at the setting of the entry to the cave!)
I found that one woman archaeologist had documented Lascaux cave, Annette Laming-Emperaire. A part of the French Resistance, she entered Lascaux in the 1950’s and documented paintings and marks as a part of her doctoral thesis. Her method of cataloging and interpreting cave art is still in use today. But what fascinated me the most were her line drawings of cave paintings: sets of different style bison horns, diagrams of colored areas, and superimposed animals.
I wanted to use her marks, so I enlarged them with a copy machine, created transparent acrylic transfers, and embedded them in the painting. The black line drawings and diagrams are sunk in a dense field of paint. Because they are transparent, the paint underneath is visible.
The painting has multiple layers. Just last year I found that my paintings transform with 3-D glasses; the translucent bright layers, and the use of fluorescent paint, help facilitate. With the glasses, the layers separate, and the lines float in an intermediate space on the picture plane.
This painting emerged out of paleolithic art, a trip to Sicily, Annette Laming-Emperaire, and the modern technologies of plastic, digital copies, and fluorescent pigments. The feeling of the painting is hearth-fire warm yet mysterious, filled with the spirits of people, animals, and landscape, and invoking a great woman scholar. A History of Home is a story of entering art and making it our home over vast expanses of time— creating the new on top of the old every generation. This process is hard to explain when someone asks “How long did it take you to paint this?” (I figure about 25,000 years, give or take.)
I am pleased that it is going to the home of Rachel, Brendan and Tabitha Welsh in Alexandria, Virginia. Their home was built in the 1790’s, so A History of Home will reside in a home with history.
I’m reading a book about getting high without drugs or alcohol. Ironic, because I live in the heartland of hedonistic, exquisite, gourmet highs, sipped, smoked, or tasted: Sonoma County. In the midst of an opiate epidemic– understandable within our current mutated, obscene American political climate– I think we have lost our ways of enjoying the old ways of getting high, all on our own, in our own brains and bodies.
“Creativity is something new, something fresh, something that arises out of the absence of preconceived ideas. Intuition— ideas that spring from the untapped, unpredictable parts of the self– results in creativity.”
I found this striking. In trying to teach students to paint intuitively this summer, I found that the concept is very hard to explain. It doesn’t mean that there is no selected form, no restrictions. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t alter it, edit it, find it wanting, or judge it. If it exists in the physical universe, there is always something that restrains and limits the painting: the canvas and brushes, perhaps a chosen color palette or emotional feeling.
I think you have to paint first to have something emerge. You have to make a random act on the canvas of some kind, because intuition wants a little springboard. One mark… one spatter… one line…
It’s this act of intuition that gets you high. It is exhilarating to watch forms appear from nowhere.
“To observe the unexpected, the unknown, and then use what one finds there in a new, unique way: that is creativity.”
One thing to note is that you have to use it, not just observe it. It isn’t a movie, and it’s not an opium dream. If Coleridge hadn’t written down the lines of Kubla Khan before the “man from Porlock” had knocked at his door, we would not have an amazingly strange and evocative poem, but just another lost drug hallucination. We tend to focus on the lost world, the longer poem or epic that vanished when Coleridge was interrupted. Why not celebrate what he did manage to capture?
I was talking to a novelist who recently visited my studio about characters in his novels who seem to live their own lives, independent of his best writerly plans for them. He said that a master writer once told him something to the effect of “give the construction of your novel to your characters. They’ll do it for you.” I try to give the construction of the painting to the intuitive impulses that manifest: shapes, lines, colors, sometimes spirits or ideas.
This intuitive painting process makes me high. It’s a problem. I can’t drive when I’m painting; ask my husband. It also makes me useless for a while for everyday life and chores. It takes a lot of energy as well, and there can be a big low after the high of creation.
But I’m now an addict. I couldn’t live without the creative high.
“Creativity is the ability to bring something into existence from nothing. That is, from chaos comes a meaningful, organized whole.”
Creation is our agency to make change, and it gives us back unimaginable pleasure in return, if the risk is taken.
I was going to write a completely different blog today. But so many of my friends in the artistic community failed to get juried into our 2018 juried open studio tour, Sonoma County Art Trails, that I wanted to bring up the topic of failure and the dangers of branding.
All four that I know are fine artists, with established reputations, patrons, and studios. Also, coincidentally, all are abstract artists or work outside traditional genre lines, and all are women.
In America, we have a fetish for success. Our success-lust — there should be a word in German for this and there is, “Erfolgswunsch,”– leads us down many dark and sterile ways. Our movies worship the thought that if one works hard enough, makes enough sacrifices, you too can SUCCEED! There are genres of treacly, inspirational songs devoted to this notion. We Americans are suckers for this one. It has invaded our churches as prosperity theology, the notion that even God wants us to succeed at everything. God wants us to market ourselves.
In this spin, the accusation is that if you have failed, you have simply not tried enough. You need to try again. And again. Apply to Art Trails again. Get in those ten thousand hours, loser. (Though those four women painters I mentioned already have put in their time to their art.) We need to re-examine our blind adherence to the try, try again philosophy. Tenacity is good. But what does it serve?
The American dream of success promotes guilt, and it promotes throwing a lot of time and money out to enter the palace of fame and fortune. It promotes buying advice and spending more money to find out how you can get into the Academy, the gallery, the open studios tour– spend year after year applying and paying the fees to apply. Take marketing classes. Give money to get online courses and gurus. Brand yourself, baby.
Part of the current propaganda of Succeeding is “branding.” My own connotations with the world are of pain, burning, slavery, hot iron and screaming calves, and ownership of cattle and humans. Branding involves creating a consistent image and not deviating from it. This means failure to conform to your own brand— say, an abstract painter deviates and paints vineyard landscapes– means that you have failed your brand. It is a failure within a failure, a double failure, failure squared. Loser!
The problem is that in avoiding losing, in identifying with our own brand, we lose the chance for personal growth. Milton Glaser, in the video below, voices what artists have always known. It is a seven-minute video and worth your time. It’s also worthwhile using the link to his website, above, and taking a look at the series of his own quotes in the header. It’s no coincidence that in discussing failure, he brings up branding as an issue.
Success, or personal growth? Milton Glaser managed both, an enviable trick. But difficult. I think everyone really needs to discover their own way through, and that takes reflection, and failure, not wholesale adoption of the images of celebrity and success our society promotes. The internet provides ways of crafting an individualized success that did not exist when I was a kid back in the the 1960’s. We only had print materials and TV.
I had a childhood memory of the show Branded, the 1965-66 show starring Chuck Connors. The theme song seems, well, branded into my brain. It is a very scary theme song and image, showing a man stripped of all his honors, his good name, his sword, and his regimental family, cast out due to apparent desertion of his comrades. In fact, he is literally “drummed out” of the Cavalry, to the sound of military drums in the background.
The very last line of the song in the video below expresses my feelings about branding. Remember listening to those TV theme songs and trying to understand every word? In the last seconds of the final credits of Branded, we hear:
Branded! That’s not a way to die… what do you do when you’re branded, when you live with a lie?
Enjoy the video below. I chose a black and white version, the way I originally saw it. Suzanne
Thanks to Austin Kleon for his incisive thoughts and for providing the Milton Glaser video.
And check out my summer painting classes at LocalsCreate, a new art venue in Geyserville. Metaphoracards is really fun and coming right up on May 29. I need two more people… if you are the first two to sign up online and email me about it, I’ll give you a free copy of Salt Licks and Bad Birds, my book. Just remind me about the book as I’m only offering it here in my blog. I’m teaching a 3 week series Wednesdays in June and July on abstract painting and a wild little class called Dream Figure Intuitive Painting on June 16. Email me at email@example.com with any questions.
Some famous researchers into Paleolithic art, David Lewis-Williams and Jean Clottes, believe the ancients may have seen the cave wall or rock shelter surface as a “permeable membrane.” They say that the shamans encountered the spirits coming through that threshhold and, I suppose, immortalized their visions on the rock, so that the image continued to act as a wormhole for spirit. It’s worth hearing it from them:
“The painted images of another world made sense because of their location on the ‘veil’, the interface between materiality and spirituality. The walls of the shelters thus became gateways that afforded access to reals that ordinary people could not visit – but they could glimpse what it was like in that realm as painted images filtered through…”
I like to create a permeable membrane. What comes through are arrangements of lines, ideas. The more random it is, the more I can see. Many more transformations are possible. It’s like ordering chaos, but allowing the background to meld with the foreground, the unconscious with the conscious. There has to be sufficient complexity for the spark to ignite, an invitation for the spirit of creation to arise.
That would make the artist a kind of shaman, though I don’t like that often-misused word. And here’s a painting on that surface, full of random marks. You might not know what will come through and leave its tracks, scratches, and breath on the surface.
I love cows. I saw far more cows than people before I started going to kindergarten. I find peace and soul in the feeling of that huge rectangular wall of living flesh breathing in a green or yellow field.
In this painting, the bright colors of pink/orange spatter are not applied last, but first. I sanded down after overpainting them with opaque paint to reveal them underneath, like arteries. In every domestic cow there’s a ancient auroch underneath.
I like like digging up the old layers, revealing the hidden veins: it’s my own version of the X-ray style of aboriginal art. I find cows make a good imaginary canvases. All that warm action lies just under a vast surface area.
I saw “Leaning into the Wind” with Andy Goldsworthy yesterday. In my mind it was superimposed upon my current obsession with Paleolithic art and signs. Goldsworthy seemed to me to be a shamanic figure, making lines and markets upon the earth with clay and rocks, like our unimaginably distant ancestors. Who were us.
He climbed into trees a lot; this could have a relationship to the practice of “climbing the world tree,” one of the ways the ancients visualized entering the spirit world. His body was part of the art. It’s also interesting to me that the few colors he did use, from leaves, petals, or perhaps natural earth pigments, were deep yellow and red. The use of ochre, often heated to produce an even more striking red color, is the first evidence of differentiated color preference in early humans. Goldsworthy spent a lot of time breaking stones, which reminded me of our first tools, the chipped stone hand axes. He made grave-like stone sleeping hollows and tomb-like tunnels.
Red ochre was used to make signs, dots and forms in the deepest, smallest passages, some of them hardly more than animal burrows. I am reading “The First Signs” by Genevieve von Petzinger. She has spent years crawling through dripping, muddy, claustrophobic passages recording abstract graphic forms. Mud was everywhere in Leaning Into the Wind, along with streaming walls, slick pavements and goopy clay mixed with human hair.
The movie’s soundtrack is as compelling and hypnotic as the film. Goldsworthy talks transparently about his own evolution as an artist. For some people, preferring the Goldsworthy of sixteen years ago in Rivers and Tides, it might prove more of a “Dylan goes electric” letdown. I found it trance-like and moving. Have you ever had one of those dreams where you work hard in your dream all night and wake up tired? The film produces an effect like that. Recommended. Currently at the Summerfield, at 3:45 only.
I have always used the term “object lesson” without quite knowing what it was. I felt, though, that I was having one, so I looked it up. “A striking practical example of some principle or ideal.” Uh-oh. Striking means that, for me, it has to hit you over the head– or open up in your face, like flowers.
I planted bulbs this year. In our time zone, they should go into the ground in October or November. Instead, they moldered and half sprouted in our garage. My husband, the gardener, gave me gentle reminders, about a dozen of them as the months wound by, to plant the bulbs. Finally, with difficulty, in mid-January during a warm spell in our California winter, I threw them in, knowing that the genetic clock had ticked on by for most of them, and that they mostly wouldn’t sprout. I blamed myself for my neglect and selfishness in not planting them; I was convinced I had failed. I visualized them sadly rotting underground. Procrastination would claim another victory in my haphazard battle to gain ground, to make beauty.
Just planting them was so invigorating I decided to scatter and sow ancient seed packets I had lying around, California poppies and cherry tomatoes, in the same bed as the old bulbs. I planted some decade-old nasturtium seeds too. One bulb package contained Parrot Tulips. I didn’t even know what they were, but planted them in a pot near my door.
You might have guessed the story before I did. Most of the bulbs sprouted. The daffodils were that amazing dancing yellow, and the parrot tulips were wonders . The seeds are all coming up right in the ground, not even transplanted as seedlings.
I deal with painting projects sometimes much like the bulbs. I procrastinate, shelve them in dark places, and deny that they need attention. But even late, “bad” attempts at planting can bear unbearably beautiful blooms. I don’t deserve them. But they sometimes happen anyway.
Object lesson: Do it anyway, late, half-assed, or whatever. A basic lesson in creativity.
The last two pictures show the parrot tulips in decline, beautiful even in decay. They reminded me of the lush still lives of the Dutch masters, where a bit of rot was cultivated for its opulence, and for its object lesson. Carpe diem. Do the work.
What about our private, individual Stone Ages? What about your art that was a start, years ago, before it ripened? What’s in your art cave? Is it brilliant? Submerged? Rough? Hard to find? From ancient eras? In this post, I’ll share some personal old, extinct art. Some is destroyed, some still exists hidden, and all are my little secrets.
As I considered paleolithic creativity, I began thinking about my own ancient art. Art is transient. Periodically, I clean out and discard my old art. Ancient art in nature is drowned, avalanched, petrified, faded, scratched and licked by animals, mineral-dripped, overpainted, destroyed. Some fragments remain.
I still don’t know why I made this painting, which I named just today after years of existing title-free. It does look like a shaman within a shaman, or big foot, or a gorilla, with magic biceps. And a little hippo is sort of irresistible. Maybe there’s a little bit of Big Bad Wolf, with granny inside. It’s scary enough that it never got hung on a wall. It has a personality…. someone you may not want to meet in a stone age alley by moonlight.
And a few more details of old paintings. I was really into that heavy texture, my own modeling paste, made from thick gesso and lightweight spackle from the hardware store, half and half.
Antique fragments, excavated up from our own lost ages, still have power. What do you do with your own ancient art?
Neanderthal art has now been shown to exist and has been dated back to over 60,000 years, before Homo Sapiens was in Europe. It has graphic abstract forms and seems to have recognizable animals (see the short film below). As more and more work is done on the “abstract” sign forms in deep caves , we are finding that the abstract is not more “primitive” than the realistic animals. They occur together.
It could be more like comparing a novel with a movie made from the novel: the more abstract marks have known meaning and carry specific information, perhaps a story script, or “credits” with location, authors, and events, while the beautiful animals are the movie itself. Books and movies do not exclude each other, but enhance each other.
We always seem to want to separate the “written” and the “visual.” We have even assigned them different sides of the brain, which has now been shown to be a erroneous. It reminds me of how much we wanted to believe the Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging apes rather than sharing a known human experience.
I’m going to try to paint my own paintings using some of these beautiful Neanderthal abstract marks. I’ll keep you posted on the paintings.
Upcoming events: on First Friday May 4, 2018, I’m hosting a gallery show of modern art in ancient modes created by five artists.
The Greek Gods weren’t white! We just think they were. “The Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World,” recently at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, was a revelation. Using minute traces of residual colors, historical material from past centuries that documented colored temples and statues, and all the resources of modern science, we now can be sure that temples of the gods in ancient Greece may have resembled a set on Black Panther more than a mausoleum.
“Chromophobia” is the fear of color. It may be wrong to apply it to a to a whole society, rather than an individual, but I think that we live in an era of mass chromophobia. Modernism in architecture and decor focuses on neutrals, greys, browns, black and white- with maybe a daring splash of green from a succulent. But from the earliest times, back to the time of Neanderthal woman, we have sought and ground pigments to produce beautiful, durable colors.
Seeing this exhibit reminded me of the gorgeous color in ancient Roman murals I saw when I was in Pompeii, and other examples preserved in the Naples Archaeological Museum. I notice that the stone pigments have a chalky quality with a kind of depth found in modern pastels today. Yummy!
Look at those pinkish stones! Pink was a popular color in ancient times.
I speculate that it was hard to get a sort of true blue-red: Red ocher tends toward sienna/orange/ brown, and any red mixed with a white opaque binder would turn pink. “Rhodophobia” is the fear of pink; someone with this affliction would have had a hard time in ancient Greece, because pink tones were everywhere.
A few hundred years ago it was still possible to see traces of color on Greek temples. Pre-photography, you could go out with your watercolorist and his camera obscura and paint from life. There were still traces of temple color documented in the watercolors of Greek landscapes and monuments by the English antiquarian Edward Dodwell and the Italian artist Simone Pomardi.
The complex friezes of the ancient world take on a vivid, comic book quality in color.
The ancients used all the color available to them. We should too.
Upcoming at Saltworkstudio: “Paleomythic”
I’m pleased to be a co-curator for PaleoMythic, a show opening on May 4, 2018, in Backstreet Gallery. I have long loved ancient art and found inspiration in it. I have joined forces with master printmaker Caren Catterall and three other fine artists to explore our creation of modern myths from ancient sources. I feel like I’ve been waiting ages to do this show… 65,000 years or so! I hope that images recalling the sacred darkness of the cave can dispel some of the darkness rising in our collective souls.
Gold leaf always seems so complicated. It makes us think of old masterpieces and secret processes. How can you use gold metal leaf in intuitive, contemporary abstract painting?
Prep the canvas first. I like to use gesso and modeling paste. Build a few bumps and ridges into the canvas. This will make the gold metal leaf have interesting texture when you apply it later. Then drip on a few interesting colors in light, abstract washes. You can use Golden liquid paints. Remember that you are not planning too much. In intuitive art, the painting will form itself from the media. You will get ideas as you go along. Let the layers dry. You can see an example with texture under the leaf here.
Let the gold metal leaf tear into large and small forms. Don’t try to control the shapes: that’s part of the process! Then use regular waxed paper from a household roll to pick up the “broken” pieces.
Apply the gold metal leaf first or in the under layers of the painting. I use a Minwax acrylic deck varnish from the hardware store. I brush it on, let it dry a minute so that it is neither wet nor completely dry, then apply the gold leaf. Let each random fall of the leaf lead you to decisions on where to place the next layer. Press the waxed paper to make the leaf adhere.
Now you have the start of a very interesting abstract painting!
But how do you integrate the gold leaf and make it a finished painting?
I will write more on the process next month. I don’t believe in “trade secrets” in painting anyway. I will always reveal media and techniques– because your painting process and finished work won’t be like mine anyway!
I am hosting a class in my Santa Rosa, California studio this month. You can find the listing for Abstracts with Gold Metal Leaf here on my website. Please scroll down. Gleam on! Suzanne
How do you get that authentic, intuitive creativity going? When I’m stuck, I make a Metaphoracard.
It’s not news that small collages can unleash a big creative flow. The Surrealists used collage as an alternate language. Austin Kleon recommends collage, even little messy ones like the Metaphoracards, for coming unstuck. Maybe even especially the little messy ones, the imperfect ones, the ones that will never see the inside of a gallery.
Laura Foster Corben and I invented Metaphoracards as a play activity for Wavy Gravy’s Camp Winnarainbow Adult Camp. We would take the cards the group made and tell fortunes with them. We wanted to stay out of the territory of the serious, archetypal, and therapeutic, and instead encourage play. But even before that I made series of small collages one summer with my friend David Short. In looking through them, I don’t know now which of us made them– but we had a grand time.
Collage is communal. It’s trashy and it violates rules because it rips and tears stuff. It releases energy, especially when it is done for itself alone, with no desire to show it publicly. It’s totally stealing images, and so it is mercurial and a bit sleazy. I never show my Metaphoracards in public because someone else– many others, in fact– made the individual images I stole.
Collage also invites synchronicity and magic. Austin Kleon writes about how artists cultivate messiness, precisely so that the unexpected can appear. I have begun to think that even collecting images in advance to use later “kills” them, because they no longer exist in the moment.
How are Metaphoracards different than other forms of small collage? Well, we paint first. Getting your own hand and colors on the surface first claims it much better than a glossy cutout background, no matter how beautiful. And it’s so much better if it IS a we, a group, because image finding is best done communally, through a large, messy pile. There are also no words and no suits. With Metaphoracards, you’re always playing with a full deck!
Frog Chalice Shrine
Love After Laundry
If done randomly enough— which is no easy thing– the cards catch a message to deliver both to the maker, and to the group around it. It’s like they are little nets that catch a fragment of the zeitgeist of the present.
And, by the way, they blow dynamite into any creative blockages you might have. I like to make them at the start of the year, to mystify myself. I love to try to figure out what the heck they mean. And they endure as a source of pleasure for many years to come.
You don’t need to take a class to make them, but I’ll be doing a Metaphoracard Class on Saturday, February 24. In the meantime, why not try a random collage with stuff on hand around you? The little spark that is creative intuition will flare up. You’ll see.
And if you can interpret any of the card photos here, let me know! Happy Valentine’s Day! Remember making our own valentines in the old days? These are like Valentines from the collective unconscious.
“What imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.” John Keats
I painted Beauty in early August, shortly before the total solar eclipse, which we caught in John Day, Oregon.
The eclipse was a summer zenith of awe, cosmic mystery, and great American road trip. Scott and I met up in Portland after I finished taking a painting workshop with Jesse Reno, and took off from there into the high desert of central Oregon.
My painting Beauty, with images of teeth shining as if for a selfie, a band-aid on a cheek, scratches and boo-boos, precariously balanced on a tipsy pedestal, and a sort of sweetness in her mismatched eyes, is how I have felt for nearly six months.
In October we were caught in the devastating Santa Rosa wildfire. Thankfully, our home and my studio were not harmed, though Scott’s place of business was badly damaged. In December I tripped and fell on cement and hurt my face under my cheek, just like Beauty, who was painted in August. I am recovering from pneumonia in my left lung. And on the day of the Blue Blood moon, the second moon of January and a total lunar eclipse, our cat Nora was killed by a car. From eclipse to eclipse, it’s been a wild ride.
Sometimes paintings hold the future. Beauty’s childlike sweetness and humor made me smile between the eclipses, through precarious times. Seize that beauty.
I’ll be sharing new paintings and exploring ideas in more depth in my upcoming Tinyletters.
“The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.” Albert Einstein
One good thing about a real painting is that it’s a gift, not a Trojan horse. You can look at a good painting over and over. It will still speak, still radiate, still suggest. When the CDC asked to use this painting on the cover of a medical journal, it reminded me of the process of Four Hands Painting with Susan Cornelis. It turns out I also did a blog about this particular piece.
When images spontaneously appear, it makes you believe that the image somehow has its own consciousness. The image/idea wants to manifest itself, if not through you, then someone else, or more than one person, in the case of Four Hands Painting. If images are living things, they come alive again when someone else sees them. Apparently the Trojan Horse wants to canter again, this time in a medical metaphor. I see the painting as a meditation on time. What do you see in it?
I recently started a newsletter called Symbol Warehouse Paintbox through TinyLetter. The email is more like an old-style snailmail letter, more intimate and newsy, and reveals more of my inner process and personal life. I’m writing them about twice a month. If you’re interested, go to this link: https://tinyletter.com/saltworkstudio. You can read the letters in the archive and decide if you want more.
I’m getting cool emails from my friend Travis, full of big dreams and symbols. Things are popping in his spirit. Travis is an interesting guy, so Etruscan pot shards and kabbalistic alphabets are involved. These are times in life when everything makes sense, moves forward and is enlivened by meaning. Your intuition is part of the great Round, and you feel it. Life advances.
It’s a bit like travel. What makes travel, travel? It’s that we are living intensely, noticing things, sorting them out, digesting them. The days are charged with meaning, and often, pleasure. We advance into fields of unfolding metaphors. It’s risky and interesting. As one of my teachers said, “That’s why you call it risk-taking. Otherwise it would be ‘sure-thing taking.'”
I’ll take a risk here, not knowing who I’ll offend: any real painting is a journey where you might not know where you end up. I’ve been listening to Brene′ Brown’s interview on creativity, risk, and criticism. Well, as benign as it may seem to risk something in painting– after all, it’s only a surface and pigment— I, and so many others, will clutch and stutter and smother when it comes to taking a true risk. Because we will fail.
Yes, we will fail: that’s one thing that Brown insists on. There’s no way to mitigate the risks: no perfect paint or brush, no perfect teacher or color scheme. But we will sometimes have a glorious “yes,” a breakthrough, which is burned into our happiness like a shining brand.
All the pictures of work you see in this blog are failures. They never made it to maturity, but were stages later obliterated, or discarded. Yet they have their integrity as individual marks. They have a transient beauty, like most of life.
I am interested in teaching how to retain the flow of unconcious, or vision, in painting. At the same time, I love the finished product, so I’m also into working with archival materials, frames, shows and showing. But the finished product is only a product without intuitive vision lighting the way. Because who are you painting for, anyway? You are painting for yourself, and a tiny handful of other artists and humans you love and respect.
I’ve long wanted to link abstract painting with dreams, vision and intuition, and to teach it. I’m teaching an intuitive painting retreat in a beautiful locale in Calistoga in October. I’ll be keeping you up to date here in the blog as I develop my ideas on intuitive vision in painting, and how to take the risk. Oh, and Travis will be there!
Friday May 5, 5-8 PM. First Friday Open Studio in SOFA Arts District, Santa Rosa. Join me for an informal evening of art. Many studios are open in the neighborhood. map/directions
Friday June 2, 5-8 PM and Saturday June 3, 12-5 PM. Art and Absinthe. Drop by my studio in the SOFA Arts District, Santa Rosa, on Friday or Saturday, to partake in a drop of the legendary art drink, Absinthe, see art, and hang out. Add a Saturday visit to me to your Art at the Source plans! map/directions
I’m back to writing you after a long hiatus. I’ve been doing lots of journal and dream writing, but that’s not for public consumption. Paintings are leaving my life, going to owners; their exit feels almost more like a sign of a change in my life than “sales.” Europa, above, caught in paint my interest in travel, ancient culture, Greek myth, and the ocean–and, of course, Europe. And now Europa has traveled to her new destination, swimming away, founding a new civilization.
I’m at a point of change in my life, almost at the end of my “day job.” It strikes me, now, that “day job” has a slightly derogatory ring to it. I suppose that the term is supposed to carry the message that capital-A art is the only worthy profession for an artist. I have been lucky in my job as a public high school teacher; I’ve managed to maintain an art practice, and served a few young people. Soon my life will be turned upside down.
This painting, “Upside Down,” recently sold as well. It was painted for a film festival as a response to the Indian filmUpside Down, a charming antidote to Bollywood and well worth a watch. The white designs on top are calledWarli, originally made with paint made of rice and used to decorate Indian houses. We’re turning our own little house upside down right now, shaking out the dust and getting rid of outworn items, ancient papers. But no matter what walks out of our life, something new and fresh will be waiting to appear on the canvas. I rely on that.
I’ll be back to blogging weekly for a while. It’s nice to be back.
It’s always exciting to have a new series choose you. It makes you famous with yourself. A great notion has flown down to take you away its talons, like a mythical bird, the Roc. This bird only sees you.
This year two new series occurred in me, “Blackboards” and “Kerubim.”
I think much art lies outside conscious control. These do. Each “Blackboard” develops itself. I have no idea of what the end result will be when I start. It’s childlike. I see this, then I see that, then I turn the board and see something else. I tell stories. They develop out of the darkness of dream, the blackness of the childhood chalkboard, with markings and erasures like chalk. And they can disappear like dreams too.
I believe art visits us. The Kerubim series (see below) is about visitation of ideas and phenomenon, texting from beyond, and decoding. Cherubim are very old, going back to Assyria and Babylonia. They orbit, rotate, have wheels, flames, eyes, thrones, and messages.
If you can make it, drop by during August. The opening is in my studio, Friday August 5, 5-8 PM (invite below). I’m happy to be showing with Chris Beards, an astonishing mixed media sculptor. I’ll be releasing images on this site through the month of August for those of you who are far away.
It’s so much more interesting to be visited by Rocs or Muses than it is to watch summer blockbusters. With ideas, when the blockbuster opens, you become its personal theatre. I wish you happy visitations.
I took a two-day workshop with Jesse Reno in Portland recently. In the glare of the plastic-covered hotel conference room, under alarming chandeliers and migraine-friendly fluorescent lights, Jesse led us down the rabbit hole to the place where composition meets dreamtime.
Even if you don’t especially want cosmic floating eyes, bitey teeth, and monsters in your work, Reno’s rigorous approach is compelling. Starting with random strokes of paint applied primarily with hands and a few brushes, he asks the students to focus on what is on the painting surface, NOT a pre-formed vision or an invisible viewer or reviewer. There is no end in sight, only process. Figures may appear and be obliterated. At least two paintings are started simultaneously.
In focusing only on what is there, Jesse asked us to respond only to the immediate and present world of the painting in any stage of chaos. One student asked if doing a particular move–some outlining, I think– would “help the viewer.” “F….. the viewer,” he told one student. Your allegiance is to yourself and the mess on the page. Another student asked if she could cut out the head of one painting and collage it on another. (She apparently liked the head but disliked the rest of the work– the common problem of the “precious” spot that dominates the rest of the work.) He said that she could, but she would be avoiding the problem. The problem is staying with the process through the dark, murky stages where nothing is working, internally or in the painting.
Reno works with only five colors of acrylic paint, his hands, and a few brushes. The limitations provide a framework to contain an extremely intuitive approach. His method is to consider only what appears at the moment, and to spontaneously follow every impulse. In this sense, it feels like meditation, where one loses focus on the breath and continually brings it back. At the same time, a governing aesthetic is in operation, an unusual combination with intuition. Each handstroke produces its own small story, especially as the mind of the painter begins to see figures in the mess. This method has a distinguished provenance; Leonardo da Vinci espoused it, even though apparently people mocked it even in his time, given the slightly defensive tone of his quote.
“Look at walls splashed with a number of stains, or stones of various mixed colours. If you have to invent some scene, you can see there resemblances to a number of landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, great plains, valleys and hills, in various ways. Also you can see various battles, and lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces, costumes and an infinite number of things, which you can reduce to good integrated form. This happens on such walls and varicoloured stones, (which act) like the sound of bells, in whose peeling you can find every name and word that you can imagine.
Do not despise my opinion, when I remind you that it should not hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or the ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places, in which, if you consider them well, you may find really marvelous ideas. The mind of the painter is stimulated to new discoveries, the composition of battles of animals and men, various compositions of landscapes and monstrous things, such as devils and similar things, which may bring you honor, because by indistinct things the mind is stimulated to new inventions.”
― Leonardo da Vinci
I find it interesting that da Vinci mentions “monstrous things, such as devils and similar things,” which are often seen in Reno’s work. He mentions composition twice. Composition– and what lies beyond it– has been a recurrent theme for me this year. I can’t know the intent of the original Italian, but it inspired me to look into the root of the word. Compose has some wonderful non-aesthetic meanings: to be composed, be still and calm. The root comes from the Latin and Greek. Com means “together,”, and pose comes from to stop, cease, or to place in repose, a pause, a stop. Each time we stop to bring elements together, and then pause, we have composed. We pause or stop together.
Back to the class. Reno sometimes models or speaks aloud both his aesthetic and narrative process. “I don’t like this, so I’ll try a little green.” “The horseshoe is in the elf’s stomach now.” My experience was that of following traces of soul or dream which emerge through paint marks, a distinct feeling of scouting or tracking. One can follow the trace or lose the track and fall off the road. Sometimes the highway is clear, but often you have to take the machete into the jungle.
When a painting emerges, it has been retrieved by a long and arduous process. It is full of information for the painter. The viewer is on his own. It’s not really about shamans, monsters, animals, tricksters, but about the process by which they emerged— or submerged, or de-composed.
Chicken with cigarette. A narrative emerges, but cannot be forced. And the story changes its ending constantly. Slippery paint, slippery slope, a wild ride.
Dear interweb world humans, beings, friends, voyeurs, and artists,
Thanks for following me all these years! It has been a journey reflective of my inner world, a composition of shadow and light, beauty and imperfection.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I have to break through an invisible membrane of fear every time. As an introvert, sometimes I don’t even enjoy posting carefully edited versions of my life and paintings. I’ve constantly struggled to be “authentic” with the innately inauthentic medium of social media and blogging. At times I have been both over and under-attached to your reactions, first living for them– the fabled “stats”– and then rejecting them entirely.
I think the high point of authenticity for me is, ironically, not the art blog, but the Camino de Santiago pilgrim posts. I really perceived the blog, during the time of being on the road, as a tentacle of true connection. I could feel support reaching through it. The art, if you can call it that, was completely unrevised– the messy notebook pages.
Looking forward, I find myself increasingly interested in pure abstraction and an authentic gesture. I want distance from approval and marketing and time to develop on my own without outside pressure, time to grow a new set of metaphors. So I’ve decided to take 2016 as a learning year, not showing year.
I won’t be doing open studios, except for our local events. I am going to paint at the Art and Soul Retreat in Portland this March. These 5 days in a hotel room, painting and sketching, should be fun and instructive. I’m excited to finally be studying with Jesse Reno. I think he is a master of staying with the process until the final image, however eccentric, emerges. I hope to focus on composition with Jane Davies. I’m looking forward to cooking on the hotel room iron! (Just kidding. Sort of.) I will be in the Sheraton Airport Hotel, car-free, and am thinking about how to keep costs low. It will be a rather fancy art garret. I’m bringing plastic sheeting so I can paint in the room if I want, storing the paintings on the extra bed.Let me know if you have ideas for hotel room survival.
At home, projects include new chicks in March, and planters for the heritage grapevines we got as starts from the UC Davis plant ark. The grapes are no longer grown in France, having been hybridized, but they are the ones that appear in many old masterpieces. An ancient strain has been preserved and will grow on our arbor, or so we hope. The grapes themselves are perhaps these that Monet painted, pale green with a rosy cast.
Both chicks and grapes grow fast once they start. I wish you a surge of new growth as well in the Lunar New Year.
I’m doing experimental mark making and painting. I start with automatic writing on each surface with drawing tools: conte, graphite, China marker, charcoal, oil pastel. Then I white or obliterate areas of the writing or painting. I follow ideas as they arise. From automatic writing I get ideas and phrases. An example: “History seeks to remember the mantra.”
I am fascinated with the process of making “sense” of random marks, images, words, and events. The creativity lies not so much in the painting process as in the slow excavation of meaning out of fields of chance.
As I worked on this series of 3 20″ x 20″ paper pieces, the word “Cherubim” appeared to me. Originally lions and bulls with wings, they “devolved” into Valentine Cherubs. Cherubim guard the Tree of Life. Cherubim guard The Big Chair, that is, God’s Throne: Chair-u-bim. It seems that floating forms, surreal automatism, and a bit of religious icon are melding in this series.
Experiments are risky. That’s why they call it “risk taking” and not “sure thing making.” Below you can see one in progress. I know they are done when a certain internal narrative about them crystallizes like rock candy in my mind. The point of “finishing” is in my psyche, not in the painting itself.
I think the real old-style Cherubim would be terrifying, more like wheels of UFO flame or hybrid winged lions, yet we know that sometimes monsters guard the gates we must enter as artists. I go forward with some trust in the process. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, friends.
If you’re in Northern California this Saturday, November 14, come to Winterblast, the best homemade holiday EVER. I’ll be there with the studio doors open… if I’m not dancing in the street.
Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, is the latest in a tidal wave of creativity books, and a very fine one. I believe it will be the go-to creativity guide for the next decade. It was only in the last twenty years that bookstores developed sections devoted to creativity in the written or visual arts. For many years it was just If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland , Art and Fear by David Bayles, or The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. And you never knew what section to find them in the bookstore; they were obscure. Gilbert’s message is not new. In fact it is ancient, but is desperately needed today. Why are we dealing with an erosion in the basic knowledge of how imagination and creativity work? Is creativity among our endangered species? Why is a book on creativity a best seller, besides the fact that Gilbert writes like an angel, or a daimon? Anyway, Big Magic was in my bag during my recent open studios. Interesting that its cover is abstract art. Hey, I make that stuff.
I approve of Big Magicand its exploration of Big-I Imagination. I first learned the tenets of Imagination that Gilbert espouses through studying the Romantic Poets with poet Diane di Prima. The primacy of Imagination was stressed; the world be damned, and often was. David Meltzer taught gematria and the concepts word-as-creator, letter as energy, word itself creating the universe, for good or creepiness…. go Golem!
I’ve always been lucky with teachers; I was taught about Blake’s Spiritual Sensation. The line was drawn deeply in the existential sand. Imagination is more important than reality. It creates reality, in fact. Ideas exist independently of us. The Big-I Imaginations fly, walk, swim, or lump about all on their own, shedding light and shadow, ambrosia and dung.
Diane di Prima also taught Western Magical tradition and guided visualization to students back in the 1980s, long before the vogue, as part of her own rich creative resources. In Big Magic, Gilbert quotes her friend and mine, Caroline Casey: “Better a trickster than a martyr be.” And Gilbert has the right idea on gods, spirits, angels, archetypes: they are both real and unreal, terribly important and trivial at the same time. Her approach is positive and full of stubborn gladness and a durable mysticism. I think it is the creativity book for our time, just as The Artist’s Wayby Julia Cameron touched a nerve in the 1980s. Cameron’s book was based on an archetype of wounding, addiction, and a 12-step style reclamation of damaged creative impulse. I prefer Gilbert’s straight-ahead optimism and humor.
Here’s what I loved in the book: The return of the notion of the individual creative daimon or genius. We each have a little whiz-bang spirit assigned to us at birth to guide or goad us. Ideas have lives independent of us. Court them, invite them, respect them, don’t ignore them too long. If you lack inspiration, curiosity and showing up are enough. Permission– Bob Burridge’s permission slips for painting, for example. The right kind of entitlement. Her own experience with the Day Job: no shame, keep it as long as you need to. Your art is not actually your “baby.” You can’t dissect, discard, neglect, or chop up a real baby. You can’t ignore it in garages or sell it.
She’s so funny! How to speak to your inner critic: “It’s best to be insistent, but affable. Repeat yourself, but don’t get shrill. Speak to your darkest and most negative interior voices the way a hostage negotiator speaks to a violent psychopath: calmly, but firmly.”
And when you’re in a lull– as I am right now, exhausted from open studios and down with a cold– she writes, “Any motion whatsover beats intertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion. Make something. Do something. Do anything.” And some sort of inspiration has visited… the next step in narrative abstraction, the next series, maybe called “Themis.” Or not. Or maybe some silly illustrated journaling or un-sellable Metaphoracards. But something, something, to give a little pinch of snuff or spice or something stronger to my daimon.
In Sonoma County, one person in ten describes themselves as some kind of artist. For each one of those, there may be a hundred who want to be. In the meantime, we swim in a polluted ocean of information and mind-waste created by nameless others. (I have just read the excellent novel The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. The book postulates a nightmarish culture where we all must hear everyone’s thoughts, all the time, a decent metaphor for the interweb. Fortunately, in his book, men are more susceptible than women to this infection.)We have become greedy gluttons of instant, fragmented nano-art rather than makers of a modest, enlivening, everyday creation. Everyone wants to be an artist. Gilbert’s Big Magic could help.
On our road trips last summer, Scott and I developed an idea we called “spiritual congruence.” Every place, every direction we headed, every style of experience– from rough travel to luxury— moved either toward greater congruity with the flow or time or what was needed… or away from it. For example, spiritual congruence on a camping trip might produce a campsite like this one, on the Olympic National Park peninsula.
This was a campsite that “just happened” to be open in the busiest campground in the National Park, just when we needed it, without reservation.
We first invented the term when we landed at a cabin that looked great on Yelp, but felt really soulless. It was expensive and unsettling… it was supposed to be the “honeymoon cabin” but it was coldly over-decorated in black and grey, graveyard colors, an attempt at modernity and elegance that failed and became merely frigid and depressing. We had hoped for a cozy, kitschy, pine paneled little place. We were surprised at how disturbing it was. After all, we had weathered true travel crises with equanimity and humor. But the vibe was bad. We started talking about it. There was no congruity with who we were or what we wanted from the trip. We sacrificed a hundred bucks, took the hit, and checked out.
The last time we experienced this deep disquiet, an anxiety bordering on fear, was on another road trip when we were heading to the Badlands of North Dakota. We wanted to see Mount Rushmore. As we drove, an overwhelming oppression enveloped us. It was so profound that we decided to cancel our trip. We checked into a motel, where we both had nightmares all night, and turned right around the next day. Perhaps it was the blood-soaked, coal-ripped country around us, the country of so many Native American massacres. Or maybe the earth itself was bleeding from strip mining.
Spiritual congruence is a flow state where outer world and inner move together. We got up before dawn to go tidepooling on Beach 4; light, water, and tidal treasures.
Sometimes it doesn’t come too easily. We were only 10 miles away from Dungeness Point, yet could not find fresh, cooked, whole crab for a whole week. We only found overpriced restaurants with crab salads and such. I even tried crabbing, with no luck! We finally found a roadside stand after hard searching. We cracked our crab congruency and ate it without butter on paper plates… ahhh.
My yurt at Ojai, with alstromeria I was taking back to plant at home
Ojai, lizard swallowing bug bigger than his head.
Keep Klickitat County Green sign
At my aunt’s beach cottage on Puget Sound, on her porch looking in.
Scott and crab
Near Cape Flattery, Olympic peninsula
Sometimes you can make your own little snail shell world so you can be spiritually congruent on the beach even on a rainy day. This setup of campfire in a can, beach shelter, and lowboy chairs makes even a windy, cold day a beach day.
I am very interested in those states where, even where there might be discomfort, there is a larger flow or current of rightness, agreement, moving together: spiritual congruency. How can our little lives be folded in like egg whites to the cake batter of the wide and glorious world? I sense it more in travel than in my daily life. But it must exist everywhere, in minor and major states of grace. I think a lot about how to make my life more like the road trip it really is.
I am open for Art Trails this year in Studio 33 one more weekend, on October 17 and 18. Come visit. I have the Camino notebook pages up, and have decided to take the plunge and make a book.
It’s been a summer full of road trips, but my newest show, “A Trace of Gold” is staying put, on view at La Crema tasting room in Healdsburg through September 2015. It has been great to have such an elegant space to display them. I’m told that tasting room patrons have a few glasses of the outstanding Pinot Noir , then take each other’s photos in front of them. Larger scale paintings– these are four foot by five– take you into totally new spaces. You enter the particular alternate universe of that painting in a way different from other work. The broken gold metal leaf catches the light, even in near-darkness. I painted these to try to catch something both fragile and eternal, like our lives.
Right now I’m writing from Mendocino, artful and artsy, charming and pretentious. I’m staying for a night in a watertower art studio– more on that in my next post. This is my third road trip of the summer. Not to stretch the metaphor too much, but larger work is really a bit like travel that takes you into odd worlds. It’s the closest we have to time and space travel through wormholes. The brush is your vehicle, jalopy or spaceship. Now I really have stretched that metaphor to the breaking point. Next post will be the real road trips. Don’t disembark yet.
It’s easy to make fun of abstract artists. You only have to watch some TV to see the cultural perspective on abstraction. In sitcoms, Hal from Malcolm in the Middle throws so much paint on a canvas in his garage that the whole painted surface crumbles off in a paint avalanche.
In Grace and Frankie, a recent Netflix sitcom, space cadet Frankie (Lily Tomlin) paints two dots on a canvas and stares at those two dots for three days, stuck. (This fictional studio led Tomlin’s co-star Jane Fonda into trying painting and ceramics.) And in Mad Men, Don buys a painting, under pressure, and sits wondering what it is and whether he’s been conned. (This painting was created by my friend Karina Nishi Marcus.)
No one really can tell you what abstraction is. You’re doing this passionate, ridiculous, solitary, incomprehensible, contemplative, snake-oil-salesman of a job. Who can advise you? Where can you go for professional critique or discourse outside an MFA program?
This Saturday I loaded up my ancient truck with 4 paintings, all large, two new and two older. I had been accepted as a participant in an ongoing seminar sponsored by the Lucid Art Foundation. The seminar was held at The Dance Palace at Point Reyes Station, a renovated church in an idyllic setting. It’s not a painting seminar: it’s critique provided by professor and painter Jeremy Morgan.
Morgan verbally examines and critiques your paintings. I found it more of a mentoring process. Much of the critique is devoted to sources and origins, or possible artists to research that might have resonate with your own style. In this way the critique widens its viewpoint from the art at hand to encompass an expanse of history and connections. His examination leads not so much back into the paintings as outward from them into the next possibilities. My critique took about 35 minutes. Three people were critiqued in the three hour segment.
All participants were handed index cards to write their own notes or observations for the painter. At the end of the critique, these cards were handed to the artist. This allows the whole group to participate, but not interrupt the critique. Some of my cards are shown below, but it was really the critique from Jeremy that felt like a light shining into my process. I felt my art had been seen. And looking at others’ art for a long stretch of time felt both intense and satisfying. We so seldom spend more than a half an hour just being with a painting, unless you’re the one painting it.
This reminded me of my arts education in poetry. I studied in the New College of California Poetics program with poets Diane di Prima, David Meltzer, and Robert Duncan (partner of the artist Jess), and others. The poets chose NOT to teach in a creative writing format. Instead, the classes were devoted to examination of poets and their root sources. It was assumed that if you were a writer, you would write, independent of a program. Instead they wanted to offer the heart of their practices, their source material: myth, Kabbalah, deconstruction, archaic history, visual arts, Hermeticism, alchemy, other poets, natural history. These were the only treasure they could bring us; the rest was up to us. Poetry is the most abstract of the written arts. In a strange way, this odd education equipped me to enter the wilderness of non-objective painting.
Point Reyes Station is idyllic. I went with Nishi. Before the class we hit a bookstore and went cheese tasting at the Cowgirl Creamery, where I bought Red Hawk and membrillo, which I had not tasted since Spain. The day was beautiful. The town borders lagoons, meadows, riparian forests, and everything is walkable. At sunset, eating sandwiches in front of the view, we both said that Turner would have been right at home, notebook out, getting that Claude Lorrain smudge of eucalyptus on the windy horizon.
I decided to compose two large abstract paintings for The Goose Game series using rolls of the dice and the old European board game, the Goose Game. I’d let chance dictate the process.
I used notebook pages and wrote either thematic or painterly elements in a list , randomly numbering them 2 to 12 to correspond with dice rolls.
You can see it’s a real mix: all the way from “use neocolors” to “holy spirit.” This way of working does have a lineage. John Cage used the I Ching to compose music, notably “Music of Changes”, including the notorious Roaring Silence segment. I found out about this during the eighties in New College, San Francisco, where a teacher, either Robert Duncan or Duncan McNaughton, friends of poet and musician Lou Harrison, who apparently also used the I Ching to compose, brought it up in class. Less known is that John Cage also used it to compose prints, monoprints and lithographs, during the seventies, at the end of his life.
The best article on this I’ve found on John Cage and his use of the I Ching is on S J Marshall’s fine site, Calling Crane in the Shade. For painting, I found the process beautifully meditative. Quiet and slow, it let each element unfold by itself until I was done with it, with little anxiety or the press of “I could do this, I could change that.” Most important, it gave comfort to be rid of the tumult of “What should I do?”
It was calming and centering to give away the control to a larger element, as I did when I was walking the Camino de Santiago. The Goose Game is an ancient European board game that has many metaphors for pilgrimage, which is why I chose it. This all sounds so odd. I find it interesting that abstract composers and artists are drawn to chance in creation. Something larger moves through us.
Some days are generous, magnanimous in their gifts of beauty. We spent last Sunday in Los Angeles at the Getty Center for the amazing show of Turners on loan from the Tate, Painting Set Free. The sweep, majesty, and freedom of expression in this exhibit was exhilarating. No photos were allowed, but we did do a little portrait by a poster, below.
The exhibit was an entire education in painting. I was surprised to find many late Turners with overtly mythical themes. I was more used to seeing Turner as a sort of visual journalist: the steam train, the fire, the storm, and so on. The allegorical paintings were fantasies constructed from elements of his imagination rather than “real” landscapes, closer to Claude Lorrain’s beautiful, improbable visions, and often were linked to lines of epic poetry he was reading. Because they weren’t “real,” you could see how he played with his favorite elements….. the black smudge tree, a centrifugal swirl, the blue rectangle mountain. The landscape was never literal and the gods very subtle; the Zeus and Europa painting had no bull and barely a maiden. It’s no news that Turner, when unrestrained, condensed many motifs down to a beautiful abstraction.
We both enjoyed the Sample Studies,watercolors he did as prototypes for larger pieces to be painted for patrons to order. You’d choose the one you liked best and he’d do it on up for you.
Any painting could grow and change organically at any point. At times he submitted extremely rough paintings to the Academy and literally finished them on Varnishing Day. I enjoyed details I had never seen before: his animals, the characteristic smudge of a foreground tree, a focal point exactly at the center of composition. The whole effect of Turner after Turner was breathtaking. We gawked like the flamingos we had seen at the Los Angeles Zoo the day before.
The Getty Center has a Sketching Room where, in the manner of old, one can copy masterpieces. You’re provided with a drawing bench, a board, and materials. I wish they had more variety, but I chose The Allegory of Magnaminity by Giordano. People wandered in. It seems the general museum public is shocked and amazed at the actual making of a sketch in a museum by normal people. There were 10 drawing stations and they were all full. We sketchers became the exhibit!
I used the conte and charcoal, then watercolor from my travel kit.
We ended up at the Armand Hammer Museum of UCLA. It’s an often-missed contemporary art museum that was a knockout. Nestled in Westwood, it has an intimate feeling. Both museums were free, another treat. Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989 was an interesting conceptual show. We were lucky enough to catch the artist in person giving a talk. In my own words, his work is based on playing with and revealing various systems of interpreting visual information. The data that comprised “tree” could be translated by assigning numerical or other values into a grid, a musical notation, or a graph. All of our perceptions are based on a sensory translation of information. He makes his alternate translation visible.
The cultural wildlife was varied: allegorical lions, Turner goats, grid trees, and real flamingos. Only in L.A.!
Monotypes are odd birds, strange fruit. It’s not a painting, yet not reproducible. It can’t clone, but emits ghosts, flickering between positive and negative images. Since it’s almost purely process, and resists planned end results, it’s an artist’s playground. Here’s my process to make one print, step by step.
These are Akua intaglio Inks, made with soy oil for easy clean up. My glass worktop is an old shower door recycled by my husband. The plate you see above is 18″ x 26″, thin plastic from TAPP. I’ve inked it up with warm colors and a few dark marks to get me started. I used an etching press for the prints.
Above, the first run from the plate. Below, another run, with magenta added for depth.
Now I press on a goose I carved with a Dremel engraver and etching needles on a plastic plate.
On the right you can see “brayer geese” from running the brayer over the plate and transfering it. Ghost geese! Then, the strange point where Chance takes her hand to the process happened. I wanted to add a dark layer in my next transfer. I spread random lines of dark ink and picked it up with a large roller. The rounded pattern ended up looking like bird and egg forms! I had just seen a Motherwell at the DeYoung and was reminded of his use of dark form over light.
Here you can see the plexiglass plate set over the paper so I could get an idea of what it might look like. Strange, but I found it compelling, so I rolled it through the press.
Finished! At the same time, I had been working on another. Both of these were done with the same plate. I just kept wiping the plate and applying more colors in different variations. Here is the second monotype in the series.
It’s exhilarating to be aligned for a moment to the unpredictable processes of making.
The “creative manifesto” is a popular idea right now. You’ll find a good variety, and they’re fun. But I have a problem with the word manifesto, which has a political agenda. A manifesto is to unite a group under a banner, to inspire. I suggest a creative “declaration”, from the old Latin, to make clear. The root has implications of brightness, to call out clarity, to make a contract– thus “declaring” taxes. It is a commitment, not a call to action.
Rather than another bullet point list, it’s challenging to try to condense your artist statement into a sentence or two. This should be a statement that will always return you to the authentic reason why you make art.
“My creativity feels like a divine gift to me, and I honor the gift by making my art about Spirit. I want to express the numinous quality of life, where the elements of nature and the stories and the stones and the places of power come alive and speak to us on a deeper level. ” Caren Catterall
“I paint from a longing to give form to what is hidden, even to me, until I paint it.” Susan Cornelis
“I work spontaneously to grow paintings as Nature creates, looking through the visible world to the undercurrents of inner forces.”Karina Nishi Marcus
“I explore archaic worlds to forge ancient metaphor into contemporary vision.”Suzanne Edminster
As Americans, we can’t hear the word “declaration” without the word “independence” implied. But these concise declarations, with their brevity, clarity and commitment, are at the foundation of creative structure. Fuzzy, overused “creativity” differs from demanding, grounded creation, where the spark is made, however imperfectly, manifest.
In Santa Rosa Junior College’s beautiful print show, 30 Years of SRJC Printmaking, I came on students doing drawings of Caren Catterall’s Giantess series of prints. They drew in the manner of illustrated journaling, with notes and impressions on the page along with the sketches. Art ripples out. You can see the prints on Caren’s website.
Students at SRJC drawing from Caren Catterall prints
On Saturday I and a group of around 30 others paid a fee to see three fine painters critique a group of mostly-amateur paintings. Paintings were lined up along the walls. The group– Marc Perlman, Chester Arnold and Frances McCormack-– selected paintings to bring on stage. The audience eavesdropped on their three-way conversation about each piece. It was an interesting, unusual event that I had never seen outside an art class.
My painting was not chosen. I offer some random takeaways from the event, and a few impressions.
Framing counts. Never use garage sale frames. Never ever, even if they “fit.” If you respect your piece, either hang it unframed or design a new frame for it.
Just because you have an emotional connection to a surface doesn’t mean it helps the painting. One good pop art work was painted on a piece of wood from a crate. True, the crate had come from France and the Louvre, but the nail holes weren’t doing the painting any good. Your emotional attachment does not make a difference to the viewer.
Composition, color, design, content, meaning and drawing were discussed, but much of the time they talked materials. Inferior materials can sink a painting. Buy the best you can.
One really cannot defend a less-successful work if you bring it out in public, because the public decides on its success. Give your paintings a chance by using good materials.
One good painting was still wet. The wetness dominated the critique of the painting, smearing black paint all over Mark Perlman’s hands. One element out of place can keep the viewer from appreciating your work.
One painting was an exact copy of a Cezanne. The critics’ consensus seemed to be that if you wish to learn through copying, copy a hundred paintings , not just one. Really do it and allow yourself to learn.
If you are doing a genre painting, such as a sort of linear, geometric, Mondrian-type abstraction, it helps to imitate the absolutely flat and smooth surface generally found in such paintings. Heavy impasto and imprecise lines don’t belong to that type of painting. Lobsters are good, so are strawberries, but you don’t want to mash them together.
I would add, however awkward, stand by your paintings, like Tammy Wynette singing “Stand by your Man.” Criticism has a place. My mentor always said that he painted for other painters. Never, ever paint because you think you might know what someone might like or approve of. Stand by your paintings, but you don’t necessarily have to show, or keep, every one. It’s only one point in an endless timeline of process.
I so appreciated the kind yet keen remarks of the commentors. Never did they deride a work of art or cross the line into condescension.
My own painting I had to criticize myself. It’s not the one at the top of the post, or the one at the side here, but one in a series in gold metal leaf that is quite similar. I didn’t get a good enough photo of it to post, as the gold metal leaf makes it difficult to photograph. Anyway, the negatives: careless, poorly conceived, not enough surface field depth or variety of line– too superficial. The positives: use of an interesting material, strong sense of gesture and movement, and good composition with interesting colors.
I am primarily self-taught and thus self-critiqued. I’m not sure I could have lived through four years of this in art school. What are your responses to critique and criticism?
Stand by your art.
Afternote: Satri Pencak kindly cited my blog. She has a fine curatorial website. I appreciate her discerning take on events and artists in Sonoma County.
For this post I’ve decided to back carefully out of the darker underworld of the Screwtape for Artists letters, and turn to brighter horizons. I’ve gathered my Camino de Santiago posts from last year into one chronological story for you. The photos give me a little spirit whiff again of wheat fields, wine, virgins, horizons. For a moment I was back in the land of blossoms and boots, mazes and muses. I hope you enjoy them.
I have a show hosted by the lovely people at Corricks featuring Sonoma County Art Trails artists. It’s me and the amazing Joel Bennett. Hope you can make it on Friday, if you’re in the area. Spring is almost here, a good time to consider your upcoming pilgrimage, wherever it may take you. Suzanne
For new readers, you can find an introduction to the Screwtape for Artists letters here.
My Dear Wormseed,
Excellent work lately, my friend. The Artist/Subject’s vague sense of victimization– our beloved martyred feeling, so handy for invisible destruction– is well under way. The joyous act of artmaking is actually quite difficult to martyrize, but you are doing a good job here. Humans make art under the most horrendous conditions. Art is a pernicious vermin that invades everywhere and is hard to stamp out.
Here’s a tip: remember that the coffin of the complaining victim is constructed with the nails of DESERVE. Whenever the Artist seems to move forward with energy, pound another DESERVING nail into that brainpan. She DESERVES a break, a cookie, an afternoon off, a cappuccino, to procrastinate just one more day. Here the DESERVE acts as a somehow “earned” reward. The more DESERVING, the less creating.
I am so glad that we have managed to sever the word from it’s original root, which has no “built-in” reward. It simply means to serve completely or fully. The Heroic Artist was very good for our cause in the 20th century: all those tortured men smoking and drinking and screwing themselves to death because they deserved it as artists. In the 21st century the women are taking the helm of the arts, and a new technique for destruction, victimization or the martyr impulse, must be assiduously and viciously cultivated.
The Goose Game is a series of 63 monoprints and monotypes based on my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. The Goose Game is also a European child’s board game similar to Chutes and Ladders with 63 squares. It may have been a mnemonic device used by the Templars to give illiterate medieval pilgrims a “map” to guide them. Forms of this labyrinth-style board game may stretch back to ancient Greece, where the legend is that Greek soldiers invented it to while away time on the beach during their ten-year siege on Troy.
I’m new to monoprint, but I have noticed that it seems to have a pronounced time element embedded into it. Once it runs through the press once, or twice, it is largely fixed, set, done. You get the feeling that each run of the press is a literal compression and limitation of energy, like the joint in a stalk of bamboo.
The press bed presents a threshold of before (the roller pressure) and after. In a metaphorical way, each print could be seen as a dream from the “bed” of the press, with traces remaining and fading.
We are at a hinge in time right now, the Lunar New Year before the Spring Equinox. This is my post 100, and I hope for a hundred more. I wish you good dreams in the year to come.
Just for fun, a news flash on the first known ancient synthetic pigment from Egypt. It hovers between aquamarine and lapis. Even sculptures from the Parthenon show traces of it. Now I have to pull myself away from youtube videos of snoring hummingbirds and ruby-eyed lavender boas. Have a great weekend.
Have you ever noticed that the AntiquityNOW website has splashes of a particular set of vibrant colors? Perhaps you’ve even found the Our Colors section on our site that reveals the ancient history behind our beauteous array. One color, specifically the deep blue, is particularly intriguing with its 4,500-year-old past, its surprising relevance for today’s scientific inquiry and its future promise for such fields as medicine and communications technology.
“Always remember the famous story of Anton Chekhov, who, when asked about his compositional method, picked up an ashtray and said, ‘This is my compositional method. Tomorrow I will write a story called ‘The Ashtray.'”
Anton Chekhov, from the book Cartooning by Ivan Brunetti
As a former smoker, ashtrays are fascinating fossils from a past life. What a great prompt, though: write or create art based on memories of ashtrays. I love this book by Brunetti, part of my interest in the uncharted land where word meets image. Why are comics seen as lowbrow? Doesn’t it take twice as much skill to write a graphic novel as a “real” one? What is so not-fine-art about cartooning? Will an artist who writes, or a writer who arts, inevitably be separated out into “better writer” or “better artist?” Not that I care. Much.
Sometimes the random is all we need.
I’ve added Cartooning to my short shelf of astonishing books on creativity, applicable to any art form. Here’s the last paragraph.
“Although you have no control over the future, you have control over what your are creating right now, and if what you create is honest, it will be compelling. Whether or not it is truly good will be decided long after you are dead. But if you hedge your bets, compromise, prevaricate… are are lost. Something has to be at stake, a part of you has to die and be reborn into your work, if it is to ‘live’ on that sheet of paper, cave wall, or assemblage of pixels. In the end, all we can do is try our best. We are none of us perfect.”
I’ve making experimental monoprints in a series I call the Goose Game. All artists are on a wild goose chase, pursuing an ever-vanishing Muse. There’s no sense to it. Even inventors, or artists of function, have to get lost repeatedly, fumbling in the darkness, before the light goes on. Abstraction, or any creating from nothing, is just plain crazy.
I had a chop made in the form of a rubber stamp. The symbols mean goose, board game, luck, art. A Shakespearean origin of the term “wild goose chase” said it was a kind of horse event where the leader swerved crazily around and the rest of the riders had to follow him. We follow our instincts up the mountain and into the muck and over continents, with the wild goose.
I just saw the film Mr. Turner, and I am so glad I did. He was on a wild goose chase of a new vision of land, water and air, though he was often reviled. Some people say “nothing happens” in the film. Nothing happens, except life. He coughs through bitter winters, scribbling in notebooks, attacking the canvas, day after day until death. We walk with him through vast horizons and empty beaches; never again will we see these views so free of humanity. This film shows the big belly, humble scratching. and wide horizon of Turner’s creation. It’s a treat. Everything happens.
Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
C. S. Lewis
Stormy weather outside, for California, that is. There’s a beautiful grey light against the too-early bloom of the magnolia petals outside the classroom door.
This C.S. Lewis quote really spoke to me, especially as I flounder about in a new media for a while. Reduced to the status of a beginner, questions of originality pale against simple technical ignorance. As I get older, I feel less unique and special, less original, as a person. I share experience with so many, and, as and adult, know it.
Congratulations on the recent sale of the Gauguin for 300 million dollars. A flood of artists will feel discouraged in their own art, and the price obscures the painting itself completely, making it nearly impossible to view with fresh eyes. Corruption rules!
The Subject-Artist recently proposed making a tableau of dream images. This is very dangerous, as these inner vapors carry far too much information and spirit, and may speak to others as well. Keep her in the familiar territory of easily understood beauty, like your recent Artist-Subject Thomas Kincaid. You earned a sizeable bonus on him, did you not?
You are on still on shaky ground with the daily studio visits. You must redouble your efforts to keep her away, or you will feel the consequences. Keep your team on the streets with graffiti– it was brilliant to unify the art impulse with vandalism. Keep it up.
I publish this each year at this time to remind us of great lakes of beer, lambs, groundhogs, milkmaids, and miracles. This includes St. Brigid’s Blessing, well worth reading. Tired of groundhog day? Celebrate St. Brigid instead.
Saint Patrick, meet your better half!
Brigid is a jolly saint of babies, poets, cows, scholars, travelers, and beer (the last attribution mine). She’s a vernal saint associated with the green fire of rising spring energy. Her Day is February 2, Imbolc. In Celtic mythology this the beginning of pre-spring, lambing, and lactation… birth and milk in the animal folk. She is a patron Saint of milk and milk givers, beast and human.
Groundhog Day was formerly Bear Day. It’s time for us all to come out of the winter hibernation now. Artists, this means you. And in this year of drought, a bit of St. Brigid’s spring rain would be very healing.
She studied under St. Patrick, founded her own convent, and tended the poor. Some– I am one– think that she surpassed him in his time.
I often do series cow series that I associate with her, but what I love about her is this list of her best and deepest wishes for the world. Read through to the last two lines, then get yourself a brewsky.
I would like the angels of Heaven to be among us.
I would like an abundance of peace.
I would like full vessels of charity.
I would like rich treasures of mercy.
I would like cheerfulness to preside over all.
I would like Jesus to be present.
I would like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I would like the friends of Heaven to be gathered around us from all parts.
I would like myself to be a rent payer to the Lord; that I should suffer distress, that he would bestow a good blessing upon me.
I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family drinking it through all eternity.
I decided to ask my artist friend Karina Nishi Marcus to join me in a studio time game. From January 30 to February 14, we’re going into our studios every day. The only rule is to walk in and touch something. That’s it. We’re curious what effect that it may have on our productivity. We do email check ins to report without judgement how we’re doing. I’ll let you know how it goes. Care to join us?
Here’s the second Screwtape letter for artists. In case you have just joined me, you can read the introduction to the letter series here. It is a letter to the demon Wormseed, who’s trying to capture the Artist’s soul.
My Stygian colleague Wormseed,
The situation with the Artist grows worse and worse. Each day she enters her studio, your goal fades like the bright colors of the Old Masters or the wild painting on Greek columns. You, Wormseed, have been assigned to suffer Inquisition Number 25631 to remind you to keep working harder. It won’t end soon enough. If only you could succeed as well as the your brother Ifrit did recently in the book burnings. Murdering books is the most delicious snack after eating souls.
I’m afraid you may have to concede defeat on keeping her out of the studio, a tactic which worked so well for so long. Now you must concentrate on subtleties. Early exposure of immature work is a sure-fire way to shut off the tap. Refusal to “practice the scales” of repetitive trials is also good. Perfectionism is a superbly subtle dagger… it bleeds out their disgusting passion for making in a very satisfactory manner.
I see you have activated the string of disquieting dreams that used to derail her from her work in the past. Even those seem to be ineffective: she’s broken their code and now know that they mean she is creating something new. However, a good nightmare or emotional crisis can go quite far. Just don’t let her make any art from them, or the jig is up.
I hope for your sake that you make more progress soon. A molecule of your diabolical existence vanishes each time a brush stroke or line is applied to paper, a reversed Dorian Grey. ( You were involved with him as well, though Oscar escaped us at the end, and after such a promising start. ) I have my faceted fly eye upon you. Do not fail again.
Your ball and chain,
P.S. Despite our continual efforts at the destruction of beauty, new painted caves continue to be found, obscured masterpieces restored. To offset this, the internet offers so many new opportunities for degrading artists, especially if they identify with digital “fame.” The hand of the artist is chopped off and dismembered from the Work, carried out to sea in an exquisite virtual tsunami of mediocrity. Divide et impera!
The Screwtape Letters, written by C.S. Lewis in 1942, is a series of wickedly funny and ominous letters from a higher demon, Screwtape, to a sub-demon, Wormword, who is in charge of corrupting a human soul or “patient.” Of late, it has been fashionable to read of “gremlins” who want to steal your creativity, block you, and so on. I’ve never been fond of the word gremlin. It’s actually a 20th century coinage used for mechanical problems on airplanes, and is “imaginary.” It trivializes and reduces temptation to a cute, manageable, pet-like critter and whitewashes the tempters’ fierce battle for your art.
Artists deal with the shadow; it comes with the territory. But I think we need to correctly name our underworld enemy, and honor it with a measure of gravitas. In this spirit I have hacked the cosmic mailbox to expose some new Screwtape letters for artists, written to a certain Wormseed, who has been assigned the soul of my art. Read the original: it’s a fresh as ever today. I write these to discover what I might have to say to myself about my life and art.
My dear Wormseed,
I see you have been making good progress with the Artist. She’s slowly slipping into a low-key despair, which is always a highly desirable state. Since the advent of the Internet, which I had a large role in creating, your job is so much easier! In some senses, the progress from the medieval artisan to the 21st “artist” has been our major achievement in the Arts. Ironic, isn’t it, that those stone masons, as hungry and poor as they were, accurately carved our likenesses as gargoyles. Portraiture was not dead! Despite oppression and all the fabulous corruption of that Church, they were often closer to escaping us than the sleekly fed, well-medicated artists of today. The Cathedral of Technology holds so many new opportunities for us!
But I digress. I see she’s starting a new project. This is your chance to make more progress. Please amplify the level of distraction in her life. A turn to “reality”– money, job, status, looks, and so on– is one of the best methods we know, because it is so supported by the society at large. Involve her in her own reality show drama, as opposed to her actual life. By all means, keep her from daily walks and home cooked meals, as these fortify her, stopping up those wonderful chinks and holes through which we enter. And DO NOT LET HER OPEN JOURNALS OR SKETCHBOOKS. As soon as she creates even one word or line, our power begins to ebb.
If you keep her in this state of stasis, you will soon see a satisfactory decay. Best of luck to you. Sorry about the turn to non-toxic materials in her studio. You can’t win them all.
This is an amazing blog by the extremely perceptive Summer Pierre. Her “three reasons” were a gift to me that helped clarify why I am an artist. Her notes on commissions, pleasing others, and the Internet are invaluable. This was republished by WordPress in freshly pressed and recieved a lot of well-deserved attention. Enjoy.
Longtime reader Sarah asked in the comments on my post about Edith Pearlman if I could share my thoughts on how I skate the inevitable line of doing work for work sake and doing work to be seen. To which I say:
Oh boy–how much time do you have?
Every artist I know struggles with this dynamic–don’t you? Isn’t this at the very core of wanting a life in the arts? You have something to say and don’t you want someone to hear it/see it? This seems like a very simple idea, though we know it is not. The minute someone DOES hear/see/notice your work is when things get really FUNKY.
I am leaning into the curve of 2015. In November I dressed up my studio to honor lights in the darkness by decorating paper lanterns for Winterblast, solstice, and Christmas. I respond strongly to the annual winter darkness, and I’ve heard many other artists say this too. It’s a time of a lot of inspiration seeds or acorns stored to use later in the year. (Don’t hide them so well you can’t find them, though.) I chose two themes, Cave and Matisse. One is glowing in the dark recesses of the past, and one is jumping with color into the future. There’s a link to my instructions for making them at the end.
Cave and Matisse Lanterns
I did a lot of family things this year. It’s easy to overvalue the things that “show” and are visible. Visual artists do this all the time. Home, family, the elders, and ancestors are the deep roots that feed us, invisibly. I cooked a goose and that was very complicated indeed, but was delicious. It was called “roast beef” in the past because the sliced goose is brown and really does taste like beef. And why not? Geese are land grazers, the cows of the bird world. I did this as an edible metaphor to kick off my work on my new series for 2015, The Goose Game. The Christmas goose is eaten, though wishbone, stock and fat are left– the old ways. Come on over and I’ll roast potatoes in goose fat for you– I got that hint from a 1940s James Beard cookbook and they are amazing.
I’ll be starting a Goose Game monotype series soon, using Akua soy inks and etching press. You can come along for the ride: I’ll be posting process photos and blogs. January is coming to an end and a new year is unfurling like a fern frond. Lean into that spiral. Here are Saltworkstudio’s lantern instructions. Enjoy.
This is a belated thank-you note for following me on my Camino journey, both inner and outer. Many of you have asked how the Camino has changed me. I am just three months out of it now, and have resumed my art life. Events have “followed fast and followed faster,” as Edgar Allen Poe would say.
What changes are showing up at this point after the Camino? I feel lighter and more complete with my life as it is. I am more able to celebrate who I am, rather than mourning who or what I don’t have, or focusing overmuch on my mistakes. This change seems subtle but profound. I have created some new paintings, filled with gold leaf and gold light, that may have emerged from the many gilded churches of Spain. Projects are coming to completion, including the Four Hands Painting collaboration with knockout artist and close friend Susan Cornelis. Our show is called The Golden Thread– the thread that leads us out of the labyrinth.
It’s not all sweetness and light, though. My world seems to be full of beautiful, artistic women who have contracted cancer. If I were the kind of person who reads omens– and you know I am– I would say that life is issuing a kind of Carpe Diem announcement, a Tempus Fugit warning. I remember the wonderful Franciscan chapel of Rome filled with little skulls and hourglasses of time flying by, made of browned bones mounted on sky-blue crypt walls. Scott and I visited this crypt, and I was surprised at the beauty and delicacy of the art. Part of my life feels like this.. a skull with butterfly wings.
So what’s it to be? Bliss or bones or golden thread, skull or butterfly wings, or some delicate combination of all these?
I’m glad to be on the road with you again. This time, the road is my life. Yours, Suzanne
I´m heading out of this gorgeous station in Porto, Portugal to catch an overnight train to Madrid, a sleeper. I can count on the fingers of one hand my overnight trains– once to Paris, once to Cochin in South India, and now once to Madrid. There is always a romance to it, even if it´s just a little sleeping berth. I want to wind up my Camino posts to you. I am not really sure I can answer all your questions. The ones about art and change will have to play out in the future.
I talked for a long time to Koos, a South African now living in Switzerland. He hiked from Geneva to Logrono, Spain… 1200 km? A long way, anyway. He did not finish the Camino in a classical sense, yet I was struck by our similarities in experience.
What I want to say to you is this. On the Camino, every day is like a world. Koos and I both had the experience of worlds of thought and contemplation opening through the walking. I see each day of the Camino like a drop of clear water teeming with event, yet magnifying a certain aspect of thought. Connections are made. You are walking in nature, so it´s healthy; beauty and your physical movement work together to support you. Only connect. It´s better, for me, than writing in a notenook or talking to someone.
It´s as if you walk further into your purpose. We lack the time for contemplation in our lives. Walking is one way to give that time back. I believe it makes a difference that we name it a pilgrimage, and to do it for a month or more. The historical and religious resonance supports us and makes it sacred. Everyone gets something different according to their needs; my insights might interest you, but they won´t be yours.
I´m winding up my trip now and may not write again, but I may store away some impressions for you from the Prado. I doubt I can walk through the world´s great museums as gracefully as I did through the days of the Camino, but I can try.
We both had the experience of childhood memories comin g up. Thereºs time to really think about them. You are supported by the activity, so the deep emotions can come up and go through you as you walk. Many people report memories. And you slowly have the chance to observe how you order your world, to take little signs and signals from nature, or from the Great Mind, or God.
My next door neighbor Neil is walking the Pacific Crest Trail for five months. I wonder if the experience is similar?
We both carried with us a list of three goals. They are private: I won´t share them with you, and he didn´t share his with me. Slowly, as you carry these things with you as you might an object in your backpack, they may transform. New metaphors, meanings, and interpretations of your life occur, all within the great open book of nature.
I think it´s important that we name it a pilgrimage. ^The historical and religious resonances support us and gives it a lovely weight. And it´s important to go for a month or more.
I went with the love, support, and daily Facetime conversations with my husband Scott. Scott, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support.
Thank you to my readers and those who have responded. You are part of my proof of a gloriously generous universe. Suzanne
I think I opened Pandora´s box when I asked for questions! Here we go. I´m loving Porto… parts of it remind me of Naples. And it´s warm, so to sit out on the roof terrace at night, surrounded by lights, is a great pleasure. The first photo in the post is from the terrace at night; I´ve enjoyed three nights of this.
Was there anything you would have done differently to prepare for the Camino?
I think I was okay with my prep. I started training in January for a June departure. The best thing I did was to learn how to use trekking poles properly. This sounds simple, but it´s not intuitive. Though I´ve had an ACL operation on my left knee, and my ankles are vulnerable, I had no trouble at all with joints or muscles. I used little leather kayaking fingerless gloves with the poles and that enabled me to use the pole straps easily and well. I saw a lot of people using two poles improperly. Don’t bother to buy them right before your trip. If you don´t practice with them so you are comfortable, it will provide no benefit. In the future I would BRING A SMALLER PACK. I found that my 45 liter plus pack was on the large side. Everyone always brings too much gear and has to leave some behind. I was so jealous of people with smaller packs. Mine, however, was smaller than some. Don´t go for superlight weight at the expense of comfort. Do not bring anything that is the slightest bit uncomfortable. Don´t bring dressup clothes… you won´t use them, not even a skirt. Buy something new when the Camino is over. Ladies, one nice scarf, one pair of earrings (I broke two pairs underway) or your one piece of jewelry, and a lipstick or eyeliner will make you feel like a queen.
The best things I brought was my iphone, a Joby Gorilla bendy tripod with a phone holder, and a full-sized Brookstone folding wireless keyboard. I didn’t need an ipad with this setup, and I didn’t need a camera. It also made strangers come up to me all the time and take notes on the setup! I brought a semilarge sketchbook and was happy with that, a small set of watercolors. I liked having a sarong along as a towel, privacy shield, scarf, skirt, blanket, picnic blanket, and so on. Many Europeans carry a smaller pack and a larger waistpack. I used a larger moneybelt in front, under my shirt for easy access, for passport, credit cards, cash and phone. You may not like the look of a waistpack, but they are secure and very practical. Don´t carry your phone in your pocket, loose. Zip it away routinely somewhere.
Hey folks, the Camino is COLD in the summer. Bring an extra layer. I would bring a light Merino wool top and leggings…. spiffy long underwear… at any season. I only brought one pair of pants and the leggings… worked well. By cold, I mean in the 40s and 50s. Even if you don´t use them in the warmer parts, you will in the mountains and Galicia. To really prep, you have to hike a lot with your pack and your boots, with a fully loaded pack and poles. By the way, I wore runners, and did okay, but I wish I had taken boots. This was not necessarily for ankle support, but because parts of the trail are quite rough and stony underfoot.I felt I had to be careful as I walked of the bottoms of my feet. But you have to decide for yourself. I had two blisters once, then not one other the whole trip.
BRING A GOOD PAIR OF WALKING SANDALS as your alternates. I took adjustable Tevas. Don´t bring flipflops… I met at least 4 people who threw them out and had to buy better sandals in Spain, because your feet swell and can need pampering and support after walking. I also enjoyed having a somewhat hardier daypack than the ultra super flimsy ones… I got a packable one by Eagle Creek. Also, all the Europeans have little ultralight synthetic sleeping bags that pack to the size of a liter of water. They are not common here, but my Marmot nanowave 55 was quite similar. Your sleeping bag should weigh under two pounds. If you are older, or a larger person, your pack will be bigger. I bought an Altus poncho, which is a raincoat with a hump in the back that goes over your pack, in Spain, and I loved it. They are not made commonly in the USA yet. You can buy an Altus and a sleeping bag in Europe before you start.
Take MORE TIME and more money than you think you need. This is standard travel advice, of course, but be willing to be flexible with what your ideas are for the Camino. You probably will want to or have to change plans. I didnºt reserve anywhere and was glad. You can always use booking.com a couple of days before. Walk at your own pace. You´ll see folks doing 40 or even 50 kilometers a day. Let them. Use your smarts and intuition to tell you where to start and end.
Is it better to go alone or with another? It depends, of course, but I have so say that for sheer contemplative time, going alone is great. You have to be in tune with your hiking partner. Many women go alone. It is just interesting to go alone with your thoughts and your conversations with the Beyond. It is very safe for women, especially if you are not in the first bloom of youth. Apples and oranges, alone or together: It´s your Camino. Most useful gear: a set of around 8 large safety pins to use as clothespins, and an elastic travel washline. You need the pins to keep your clothes on the line when thery´re hanging out a third story window or whipping around in an alpine wind, and you can use the pins to pin the still damp clothes to the outside of your pack. I prefer thick hiking socks and they take a long time to dry. I took a small shred of beatup towel to use first to dry my body, then throw on the slippery floor to stand on. All the showers are tile and tend to be dangerously slippery. I carried a regular old bandana everywhere and used it for so many things. Often bathrooms have no soap or paper towels.
Mentally or emotionally, what would I have left behind? It´s easy to whip out pat answers to this one. You need a lot of patience with yourself and others, and to leave judgement of yourself or others behind. I saw a lot of folks get into trouble with a competitive feeling, especially when you´re older and less fit and comparing yourself to athletic youngsters. But I will rant a bit about an attitude that caused me personal problems. This may not sound very spiritual. I wish I could say something more enlightened-sounding.
The thing that caused me big trouble was taking a tourist approach to Camino lodging rather than a pilgrim approach. The pilgrim approach is to take what is there, be grateful for shelter and company, and to laugh off any problems the next day. After all, it´s only one night. You don´t have to rush or reserve or prefer or angle to choose a better place. You know God is taking care of you: trust.
The tourist approach is to read ahead, to plan, to try to figure out what might be the best place. Of course, you want to stay somewhere that is not horrible. But most hostels are fine. I found that when I tried to pre-read, angle, plan, or consider reserving, it did not do me any good at all. Rather, the opposite occurred: I became critical, pissy, and discontent with what I got.
I am not even sure planning has that much to do with it. I am sitting here in an exsquisite townhouse hostel, a Porto villa from the 1800s, and I am only here because it was the only one that kept popping up on Booking.com, not among my first choices. I personally wish I could have left this demanding, deserving, entitled feeling behind. As a pilgrim, you take what is there, and you are SO HAPPY just to stop walking. My worst mental problems came from confusing being a pilgrim with the comforts of 21st century tourism. True hospitality is so simple.
Here in Porto, Portugal, I´m sitting in a beautiful hostel, a real hostel this time, that has won many prizes. It´s in a renovated townhouse in the center of old Porto: high French windows in each room, billowing white curtains, views of the port and river. I am in a woman´s dorm of six, and am about to go upstairs to a breakfast, up the old wooden stairs to the rooftop kitchen area. Once again, I feel like I am borne along on some gentle river of right place, right time. And there´s a computer that seems to work.
I left things behind, and lost things, on this trip. Let´s start with the physical. That pack is your home, and when things are lost or stolen, the shock is disproportionate. I lost three items, probably because I left them behind~~ sarong, prescription sunglasses, and a pair of underwear.
This whole trip I have been experimenting with flow. I decided that when things went wrong, that was a signal to stop and do something else, in other words, to actually change something. I think it was Einstein that said you can´t solve problems on the level they were created, but have to step outside them to another place. This loss of items sounds laughable when I list it, but these losses caused my stomach to lurch. In the damp weather, having only two pairs of underwear left me no margin of error for drying them. The sarong was my security item~~ scarf, pillowcase, bedcover, blanket, modesty while changing, and a curtain for my bunk if I wanted privacy. Oh, and it was my towel too. And sunglasses.
When I encountered bad events, feelings, and bad days, I had the time to do a few existential experiments. My idea was that if things were going wrong, or I was freaked out, I could change my ideas and plans to something that felt better. This sounds so simple, but often in life we are bent on a course. If you have an awful work day, you stay at work and tough it out. But I didn´t have to do that here.
So when I lost things, or became fearful of hiking alone in the green, dripping Galician woods, I could read these as gentle nudges to change plans. It worked well. When I got an infected blister, it gave me two days in a hotel room to reconsider how I approached the walk. I think one reason my walk was so wonderful is that I let painful signs actually give me a message to change, and I could act on them.
I also had some bad dreams on the Camino. I think that we brush through layers of religion, history, blood and war when we walk through these places. The cathedrals are full of blood, bones, skulls, body parts, and monsters, the gargoyles. When you start to align yourself with the good, I think the shadow can be activated. I am used to this. I often have bad dreams when I start innovative creative projects. When you step outside your comfort zone, your subconcious mind knows it. There is often a kickback, like firing a gun. I believe all dreams are meant to help us, and are messages, so I don´t worry as much about uncomfortable dreams as I used to.
The Camino is a metaphor. How wonderful to leave things behind! I could leave the dream in a church, or at a tree, or in a cafe, and hike on. All of life is a process of leaving things behind. We can read that as loss, or a new chance. I did my final leaving behind of deep things at the alter of St. James. I left behind the same things the ancients did: old wounds and sins and temptations, atonement. I feel like I literally left them behind for the saint, or history, or nature, or God, to return to the cycle of the universe. We leave things behind and face the new day freer.
By the way, after I started this post, I found my blue sarong in a ball in the bottom of my pack! My friend returned! Ah, synchronicity. Go figure.
Several people have asked me to comment on some of the practical aspects of my June-July 2014 Camino. I must emphasize that these are my opinions only, and that many will disagree. There are many available sources to use to form your own opinion.
Money: from California estimate $1500 or more for a round trip ticket, $300 more for travel in Spain (train, bus, taxi). For a 40 day trip, I would budget $60 a day…. around 40 Euros. This is high, but you will want the occasional hotel and dinner out. That makes $2400 + 1800 = $4200. You may also spend 300-500 on the right pack, shoes, small sleeping bag. Make sure you have a good working credit and debit card. Credit Unions have far lower fees than regular banks for withdrawing cash or using credit cards abroad, so get set up with a credit union. You can of course spend less daily. I often relied on a tomato salad with bread and tuna , fruit on the side, that I made in a hostel kitchen.
Time: I would give it at least 40 days for the whole thing. The Brierley guide is excellent, but if you want to stop to smell the roses, I would walk two days for each of his stages. Choose shorter stages, or choose a portion of the route to walk.
Distance: If you were backpacking in the Sierra, you probably would not walk 15 miles a day. Unless you are sure you can do it, 30 km a day is a long, long way. I saw many people injured and ill from trying to do too much. Also, starting in the Pyranees seems to me to be a point where many people injure themselves or get ill. Go shorter distances, start very very slowly, and WALK AT YOUR OWN PACE. This may not fit the guidebooks. I must emphasize that it is crucial you do everything you can to remain healthy. I saw so many people almost punishing themselves, and harming their bodies, on this trip, pushing on when they should have stopped.
You get a Compostella for walking the last 100 km into Santiago, starting in Sarria. So thousands of people, and schoolchildren, choose this route because it is the easiest way to the document. The path is very crowded and is a very different vibe than other parts of the Camino. That is the rule of the Catholic Church– walk the last one hundred. The Camino is far more than the document. You might consider an alternative route and skip the Compostela. God will understand.