If you blur your eyes for a moment, you’re in a different world: the world of impossible beauty (angels) and unfortunately conceivable horror (the demons). There’s so much gold that it creates its own pattern in the negative spaces. Or should I say positive spaces? Heaven seems more real than earth.
You learn to recognize the angels quickly. Michael tends to have black wings and red shoes. Gabriel has the lily, and the other one is Raphael.
There are other angels as well. This memorial, composed of padlocks and silk, holds the names of women, gay and trans people murdered during domestic abuse.
Now on to the demons, and the in-betweens.
I found the coffin set in a wall, surmounted by scenes of damnation, in Santa Croce. If they couldn’t get piety, apparently horror would do fine.
I do like the in-betweens. Play the game like you did as a child: if only I were strong as a lion, could fly, could get rid of my enemies… and you get this Etruscan manticore… or is it a gryphon?
And now for some liminal self portraits, to add to the spooky ambience of October. Sometimes I did feel that I was the ghostly visitor, and the past was the living thing. Suzanne
God is in the details. Surrounded by so many enormous, monumental works of religion, art, culture, and architecture, I want to take time to dwell on the small and particular in my days.
I decided that I would eat my main meal midday, and that I would only eat in places I felt comfortable. Because I’m traveling by myself, the comfort level of the cafes were paramount. Did they smile? I also settled on never eating at a place that didn’t offer a changing daily menu written on a chalkboard, with no actual menus. This means the food is generally always fresh, depending on what the market offered in the morning. It also means I don’t have to deal with much choice: one to four pastas and one to three changing main dishes. This is how the Florentines tend to eat, and they eat early, from around 12:30 on. If you don’t order the pasta, you can get a main plate, generally meat and veggies or all veggies, a classic protein/vegetable dish. A good lunch cafe will run out of the most desirable “secondi piatti” and scratch it off the board, so I’ve learned to go early. My main cafe refuses to speak English at all to me, to help me learn Italian.
I walk everywhere, so I can’t speak to public transportation. I wear walking boots, over the ankle, all day. They have saved me many times on the uneven, ancient cobblestones and in the needed traffic dodges. Florence is now fairly traffic free in the middle, but you still need to be on your toes walking down ancient alleys.
I avoided tourist places and found three cafes that I liked. In the evenings, I cook at home in the apartment and read, write or sketch, after a walk in the silky Florentine early evening. So I have not done a food tour. I buy premade cooked veggies and food at the supermarket and heat them up on my little induction stove surface in the apartment. The food cooks but the pan doesn’t get hot. Strange!
Dealing with daily life while not knowing the language let you know that you are a little bit stupid all the time. You’re the outsider. It’s humbling. I think that’s why the classic pilgrimage was to a foreign land through unknown places, languages and customs. The humility, or humiliation in some cases, leads you to pray a lot.
Learning how to do daily life in a strange land leads you into places you normally don’t see. The apartment dwellers take out their own trash and recycling to well-organized, labeled city bins, often blocks away. Apparently you can sometimes leave out neat bags of paper recycling to be picked up, but I have never seen trash left outside on the sidewalk. One night after a football rally in Santa Croce square, where hundreds of people were drinking outside, I saw bottles and cans left on benches, gone by the next morning. Trash doesn’t automatically disappear here. You have to walk it out and dispose of it. Then you wash the sidewalk in front of your apartment. Thousands of years of tiny acts keep it all clean. It’s different.
Florence makes things. It hand sews leather and makes book bindings. It still gilds things and makes silk, then fabric, then handmade dresses from the fabric. It’s a busy place with a frenetic energy, probably the least relaxed place in Italy I’ve ever been. It’s been cosmopolitan for 800 years and it shows. I look in shop windows and people are sewing, gilding, cutting, printmaking. It’s all still happening. The hands of Florence are always moving, often making something beautiful or decorative. Or delicious.
We view original art to have a hidden moment with it, intimacy. Like Venus, patron of art, we want to have a relationship, a love affair, something personal. Botticelli was the high point for me. The chance to see so much of his work in the Uffizi was a revelation. Heresy: I like Botticelli better than Leonardo. Leonardo was a techie; Botticelli was a mystic. I write here my own discoveries from looking at the originals. This is an art geek post, so be forewarned. I don’t know if my revelations are unique, but at least they are mine.
There is movement everywhere in a Botticelli painting, but in the atmosphere. The roses are floating down, her shell boat is literally floating in on the tide, washed in on the foam. Venus was “foam born” and if you look at the veils of wave at the bottom of the shell you can see the shell moving. Botticelli mixed alabaster with tempera to add a light pastel opacity to the painting. The sea, with its little waves, has the color and flatness of maps; he was good friends with the explorer Amerigo Vespucci and the families lived close to each other, so I regard the flat sea as another visual pun. Every part of nature is flowing, waving, alive. This reminds me of the movies of Ridley Scott, who often has snow, ashes or petals drifting down, especially in epic scenes.
I found out that Botticelli had probably been trained as a goldsmith after looking at the gilding used as a painterly element. In Venus, the whole atmosphere is that of dawn, and he using stripes of gold on his orange tree trunks— the oranges in bloom with their sweet blossoms to add a ghost of fragrance to the work—reflects that. He uses arcs of gold on the pebbles of the earth bank on the right, where Venus is about to step off. The shell casts a long dawn shadow.
There’s a real joy in nature in the paintings. I loved seeing the nearly invisible wild iris in the corner of the Spring painting. And there are visual jokes: in Venus, the Wind is blowing a spume at her… just like the Annunciations, with their lines connecting the angel and Mary. He’s fecundating her. Microscopically fine veils show lines of energy, light moving in waves, and connect visual elements. The veils are like starlight made tangible. About the gilding… I had not seen it used like this, on simple trunks and little pebbles, anywhere else. I saw it used only for halos and sometimes on fabric ornamentation on the Virgin’s robe. Using the gilding on trees and rocks instead of halos makes nature holy. More encoded visual puns!
I ended up spending more time with the Allegory of Spring. It’s just such an interesting painting. There never seems to be much that’s formulaic in these works. I was alone for a time with the painting; that might not ever happen again.
The leaves overhead are oranges, and Mercury seems to be poking down an orange to eat with his caduceus. Mercury loves to steal things. It is very human. I think Mercury might be Botticelli. His paintings are witty. They have humor.
I can’t say much about the Renaissance, but it was not about the invention of three-point perspective; that’s technology embodied. It’s in the mixing of cultures and the breaking of worn-out molds that the good stuff happens, the brief blooms, like the sixties. Botticelli broke the musty war-and-religion genres of the time with his loud paganism. It’s easy to think that these smooth faces are inventions, but I saw this museum visitor in the Map Room and I thought, oh, a Botticelli face. You think that this radiance is a painterly trope, but then there was this guy walking by. I snapped a stealth photo.
What if Botticelli was your interior designer? This wall painting was moved intact from someone’s house. Interesting to see a Botticelli with earthier colors because the medium was different. I had not seen this one before. I would lay odds that the background in the painting reflected the actual background of the loggia, vineyard, and setting of the patron’s house.
More green squiggle marks behind him in another Uffizi painting
Movement, bringing real nature into painting, and starlight made visible. And the faces, and the wit. That’s my Botticelli, the one I met in person through the originals. We might need him again as our world turns back into increasing darkness.
Non perfume-people, you have to read through this this to get to the pig! This place is pure magic. You enter through cascades and garlands of flowers. I am already enchanted, walking in a dream through clouds of scent. It was formerly a 12th century church, so that’s a nice storefront. Inside, women wander with looks of bliss and men with looks of discomfort— except the Italian men. I will generalize here. Italian men are comfortable with animated shopping for fashion, shoes, perfume. They’re well trained; after all, this place has been open 800 years. It was originally a hospital, where the monks gave you cures: rose water against the plague and so on. And then they made the perfume for Catherine of Medici, Queen of France. Through her, perfume was introduced to the French Court in 1533. Yes, Italy invented perfume as we know it! I have a small sample of that perfume. Whooof!
The scents are strong; they are based on the herbs, the monks’ noses, and hygiene needs of the past. It’s a three part process to choose. You sniff the perfumes you like in the funnels, then get them spritzed on cards. If you still like them, you choose one only to have applied to your wrist by a young, beautiful Italian woman. It took me over an hour. Reader, I bought one. They smell very unusual, and the cologne lingers as long as a modern perfume would.
After all this ethereal scented beauty, I decided to visit a famous pig. Pork is big in this city; it’s a meat heavy cuisine. I am not going to try the Florentine beef steak. I am always let down by European steak. Yes, even the French kind. I grew up in Western cattle country. You call that a steak? It’s like me being proud of my pasta. An Italian might have a few things to say. Giant sides of beef and pork hang in windows.
Il Porcellino eats the coins of visitors who rub his snout for luck. Forget all about the art treasures of the Western world. The Boar is where it’s at. Pietro Tacca, 1654, sculpted the original, but no one remembers him; the artifact eclipses the artist. It’s magic, hilarious and a very fine sculpture. I didn’t feed him a coin, but I might before I go. I did rub his golden snout. The place is thronged. People are laughing and screaming with joy. The coin drops from his open mouth either into a little grate (desirable and lucky) or to one side (not as lucky but hey you tried).
The sculpture is excellent and I enjoyed it. It was easy to enjoy the beautiful swampy base filled with snakes, frogs and toads. I have noticed this about painting and sculpture. We only get screwed up when it comes to humans. People have always made naturalistic, gorgeous animals, birds and plants, no matter what the religious and aesthetic dictates of the time. Even the Egyptians made perfectly accurate bird and animal paintings when freed from having to make the pharaoh and his god-court in a certain sideways style. We marvel at Donatello, who, gasp, made the first naked guy statue since the Greeks, un-damming the flood of Naked Guy Statues. But animals have always been pure and vigorous, and joyful.
Florence forbids selfie sticks in museums. I don’t own one anyway, but I am starting a self portrait series all in reflections: mirrors, glass, windows, shelves. Viewing centuries of portraits, I want to make a few of my own. Because of this cruel restriction on self-documentation, some enterprising soul has started a Selfie Museum, where all you do is take selfies.
My head is in a spinning vortex of art. I am thinking all the time as I view, and it really makes me dizzy. My next blog post will have some of my ideas as an artist on all the art I’m seeing, and some thoughts on ancient art, the Renaissance, and Italian modernism, but for now I ‘m just sticking my toe in the water. I have now been to the Uffizi, Pitti Palace, the Novocento Museum of Modern Art, the Archeological Museum. I’m falling behind on my churches.
I found I really like the Pitti Palace, and the Uffizi. The Uffizi is completely beautiful in its gallery rooms, clean and modern, with 19th century corridors that access the modern rooms. I’ll get serious about the art later. In the Pitti Palace, it’s the old ways. The pile up of paintings creates a deep scrapbook or collage effect. The paintings talk to each other. Often it just gives you visual indigestion, but really, paintings love to be with other paintings. Painting loves sculpture and vice versa. From the Uffizi corridor, or connecting hallway, I viewed sculpture with paintings hanging above, and these irreverent, collage-type thoughts entered my head.
Speaking of pool boys, this city is chock full of naked guy sculptures. I was going to head up a blog post with that, but thought I might get censored. My friend Kalia said that she sort of got “Virgin toxic overload” in Florence. I am experiencing Naked Guys overload. I haven’t even been to see the famous David. I figure 25 smaller naked guys might equal one David. I thought of doing a series called “Florence as Seen Through the legs of Naked Guys,” but soon abandoned it because it was too easy. I did get a few photos, though.
The Uffizi is like an art book came to life. As an artist, you enter a wonderland— down the rabbit hole. I am going three times, so I’ll focus on it later. I got there really early in the morning, for the 8:15 AM opening; you need reservations and advance tickets. I managed to sprint ahead to a few rooms for near-solo time with the Botticellis. The sun rises past 7:30 here so here’s what you see at dawn outside the Uffizi.
For now, I offer you a candy box of paintings from the Uffizi. See any old favorites? Don’t eat too many. I am making light of this because I feel dizzy all the time, close to laughing or crying. It’s my messed up sleep schedule combined with art flooding and the uncertainty of travel. It’s like I have to be two or three people because I’m alone, if that makes any sense. What a garden of delights. Florence is a treasure house, guarded by the curled and sleeping dragon of jet lag, and the weight of centuries of genius. I’m trying to snatch a coin or jewel from the lair.
I have arrived. Travel is related to art; both involve living on the edge of cliffs. The more you don’t know, the more exciting it is, for better or worse. Lurching into Amerigo Vespucci airport after 3 flights, I felt that molasses-like buzz of jet lag, exhaustion, and stress sweat. It was 16 hours of wearing a mask on Iberia air, which still requires masking in the plane, and my nose and throat were sore from rebreathing my mask air. It was night and there was a long line for taxis outside. I was having credit card problems that concerned me— would I be able to get cash? (More on this later.) And I was traveling alone, so no one was there to share the decision-making burden.
It all started to go right for me when I decided to take the T2 tram into the center instead of depending on the taxi to deliver me to the door. I had small luggage and was mobile, so I could walk to my place from the end of the tram line. Feeling lost, I did a travel trick and picked out an appealing stranger to follow. He was a chubby, friendly man carrying a musical instrument and he was heading toward the tram. He helped me buy a ticket— turns out he was English and I had no idea. He laughed when I told him I followed him. I was able to give him some advice as well. These “angels” are everywhere, but it involves giving up control, using your intuition, and asking for help.
Immediately, I was in lovely laughing Italy. The door closed and the car filled with people talking, singing, shouting, living. I was out of the commercial tunnel of air travel at last. At the end of the line I walked out with my little rolling bag and small purse pack into this scene. Sometimes you have to give up control, then a “flow” starts, and you are in the place, not thinking about it or struggling with it. Do you know what I mean?
This psychedelic setting encouraged me— it was like wandering through a dream. Vendors were shooting luminous fairy lights high into the air and they drifted down the sides of the green and white fantasy cathedral like wired angels. I arrived at my studio apartment, my little refuge for my time here.
My guardian spirit for this trip is Dante. He is everywhere in Florence, so that’s nice for me, because I want to be everywhere in Florence. I am collecting Dante images. The church of Santa Croce, where the young lovers in E.M. Forster’s “Room with a View” met, is steps away, along with Dante and Very Big Kitties. It was just a brand new suburban development when Dante was in town.
The credit card fiasco? I figured it out, but here is your travel tip, Americans… know your credit card 4-digit PIN numbers. No, not your debit card PIN which you use all the time, the ones for your credit cards. No, not your 3-digit secret code which you also use all the time. Scott had to wire me cash with Western Union, which made me feel like I was a teenage backpacker. Even then, I never had money wired to me! The credit cards are fine now, but for the first time in years I am walking around with strange cash in my wallet. On the travel edge, again. It’s beautiful to have cash. The Euro is now the same as the dollar. This lunch “menu of the day” , written on a blackboard in a neighborhood bar, cost me 16.5 Euro/bucks total: salmon, fennel, glass of white wine, bread, espresso and small dessert. 1 Euro tip. Paradise, with some sword-and-cliff edges to get there.
If you want to read more travel writing, and more of the Over Underworld sketch/myth series, simply scroll down, and feel free to comment here, right on the blog, or in all the social media things. It’s nice to know that people are reading!
We are camping at the remote California Mission San Antonio de Padua, amid the oaks and a huge and noisy flock of acorn woodpeckers. Pleasant little knocking sounds, like tiny bamboo drums, come from all directions as they work. This Mission is set in a small pocket of space completely surrounded by the Hunter-Leggett military base. Each morning Reveille, the bugle call, echoes over the speakers, bounces among the foothills, and is answered by the howls and yips of coyotes.
It’s a stark mission, the third one founded after Monterey and San Diego. By the 1930’s it was in ruins, then slowly brought back. There is still an air of privation. Several Padres died of starvation; early California was hard. I walk around picking leaves from the Original Grapevine, Original Pomegranate, and an Original Olive, perhaps 250 years old. One of the women in our camping party has us making cyanotypes.
This Mission is near Jolon, CA and is open to the public. You can rent rooms and stay the night, but must bring all your own food. The power can be dicey and the cellular/internet is controlled by the military base, which means odd outages and censorship. I could read The NY Times, but couldn’t watch my Best of Late Night video clips of political satire. Hmmm…
The stark surroundings make you appreciate the beauty of simple things, like a pomegranate cold from the fridge. It’s a bit ghostly here. Indigenous people died; the church with its crucifixes of tormented, sad, Jesus did not provide much relief from suffering.
Only the fruit and the women provided a bit of joy; I mean of course the Virgins, with their compassion. The Refectory remains cool all day behind 3 foot thick adobe walls, natural climate control.
Scott does a demonstration on tire repair to the group which involves punching holes in tires and party balloons inflated at various levels to show how “airing down”— deflating your tires before desert off road travel— can help avoid a flat. The theme of the presentations is survival, and, set in the heat among the “beware of snakes” signs, seems to highlight the stark beauty of the dry oak forest. The mission has warnings inside each door to close it to prevent “uninvited visitors” like tarantulas and rattlesnakes.
I’m off to the lush churches of Europe soon. Seeing this place reminds me of how much of a New World California really was.
I stopped blog writing during Covid. The next blog down from this one plunges you right back into Dante’s underworld, so watch your step— the fall is a long one. The pandemic, combined with the rise of authoritarian regimes at home and abroad, pretty much gutted me. How to paint out of that?
But I did, though the paintings had a new tone. Artists are, for the most part, relentlessly critical of our work. It comes out of us, everyone sees it and judges it in some way or another, and thus it is very fraught to create, which is why most people don’t do it. For this recent open studio, I decided to turn criticism aside and simply like my own work, give the paintings something from myself that was not finding errors or ways of improvement.
This painting has an obscuring grey mist or fog, but bits of gold peek through, and rose is trying to emerge in some places. There is a feeling of falling down and rising up simultaneously— a cycle of life— and the green has a fresh feeling, though in a field of ash. It’s always a bit dangerous to “read” abstraction, because everyone has to come to their own terms with it. But a true painting can speak volumes, and I decided to let my own work speak to me with a new voice. As an abstract artist, “zombie formalism” can be tempting… the splash of paint, the pleasant color— but devoid of personal meaning to the artist, thus the zombie part… neither alive nor dead. And zombie paintings can’t speak.
I struggle sometimes to find inspiration in my own work and life. Look around, I say to myself. Eat a fig from your tree that the raccoons didn’t. Let your own creations give you a little love back. It feels good.
What do we want most when we are traveling through an Underworld? One ill-fated goal is to rescue another who is stuck to bring them back from Death, never a good idea: the Monkey’s Paw effect. Better is to journey toward a happy ending, reuniting with our loved ones or God. This was Dante’s goal. Another favorite hope, a subset of reuniting with loved ones, is to be in ecstasy all the time, eating and drinking and making love and giggling– to get high. The goals of the Underworld are actually in alignment with the goals of Comedy, not Tragedy: it should end with a reunion or party with loved ones, and you should be able to get drunk, maybe listen to some really good music…
I made these drawings in the Getty Villa’s Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife exhibit. One thing that tickled me the most was Plato’s disdain for those who only wanted to go to the Underworld to drink wine. There apparently was a cult devoted just to that. As a citizen of perhaps one of the most hedonistic places on the planet, Sonoma County, California, where wine, weed, and fine food are elevated to a religion, I understand.
Plato loved wine, but was careful. He even proposed the first age-related drinking laws: that boys should not drink before age 18, because it is wrong to add “fire to fire.” But he was careful not to elevate wine, preferring to use it as a tool for truth and celebration. He said that to spend all our time in the afterlife “crowned and drunk” was dumb, that eternal inebriation was an unworthy goal for the Underworld. Many of the Underworld themed wine vessels had phallic grape bunches, implying that there was even more bliss available Down There.
In this time of quarantine and apocalyptic thoughts, I can’t help but remember the rat banquet scene in the Werner Herzog film Nosferatu. The people are feasting and dancing in the square in a sea of rats, because they know that they are about to die. In our world, this is a good metaphor for substance addiction; unable to stop as a world falls apart. Dark.
Is it so wrong to imagine that some of life’s fundamental pleasures might be available after death? I wish you surcease of sorrows, but in non-apocalyptic quantity that does not wreck your world. Or your morning. It’s a slippery slope.
From Plato to you, as you sip your Quarantini 2,368 years later: “What is better adapted than the festive use of wine in the first place to test and in the second place to train the character of a man, if care be taken in the use of it? What is there cheaper or more innocent?”
Here I am with my quarantini and pearls, sans rats. Here’s to all of us. And from Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” —Suzanne
This is the eighth Over Underworld release, a online art exhibit of paintings and sketches in March and April 2020. Featured art: Sketches from Dante’s Inferno Illustrated Notes. Contact email@example.com.
In our quarantine Underworld, we need a wildlife field guide. We are wandering through a dark, foggy place, the upside down world. Or we are caught in stasis, like a formerly productive worker bee trapped in amber. And then we come upon a monstrous beast…
The Bitch, above, is part of a series of Underworld animals. I start with random marks, and the paint-beasts emerge from the darkness, almost like a negative developing in a bath in the old world of photography. Since I believe Hell to be states of emotion and being, the Beasts are instincts turned to shadow and gone bad. All underworld animals are generally about the mouth or maw, devouring or spitting fire or venomous. All tend to have big red or floating eyes. And many cultures have Underworld dog creatures, like my Bitch, like Dante’s wolf.
I’ll let you wander in the Underworld with my Beasts for a moment. The worst Beasts threaten to devour us during this Quaran-time: boredom, apathy, bitchiness, physical illness or disfunction, anxiety, cruelty to others with whom we are trapped, anger, denial, fear. What freezes you when it happens? What drives you to the couch, the bottle, your OCD activity, the Netflix binge? That’s your Beast.
Ciggie Chick, private collection
Mary-s Angel, private collection
All Underworld beasts cannot be ignored. You have to greet them, while avoiding being eaten. You have to placate them so you can get by them and on to the next stage of the journey. I have found three major modes of placating and soothing them, at least according to mythology.
Feed them. Honey cakes seem popular. Get to baking! Spread some sweetness around.
Play music for them, or better yet, make music for them. Music makes them wander off or doze off. Music soothes anything that is savage within us. Making music, even at an amateur level, or trying to make or play music, opens a sort of beautiful mathematical or emotional space that the Beasts just can’t enter. Or you can also sketch them or poem them or paint them. Create-a-beast. They become friendlier.
Make a sacrifice to appease them. Give something up to keep them calm or at bay. It’s like Lent. You give them something that you will miss, like gossip or drama, or too much social media.
I was happy to learn that there is a tradition in China of underworld Horses and Oxen. Perhaps Cash Cow, below, belongs to this tradition. This was painted in 2017, shortly after the Trump inaugeration. The cow is America, bought for cash and kept chained and overused for milk until it dies. Perhaps the little flying mosquito-like stars are the attack of the coronavirus.
Dear Readers, I have new work, but have not been able to get to my studio to properly photograph it, due to movement restrictions. I will try to do this next week so we can see what grows out of the Underworld– The Tree of Life– in the next Over Underworld Art Exhibit releases.
In the meantime, placate those Beasts. All be well, Suzanne
This is the seventh Over Underworld release, a online art exhibit of paintings and sketches in March 2020. Featured art: Bitch, Rocket Bunny, Underworld Herd and Night Hunt, all original acrylics on panels, all $450. Cash Cow, acrylic on canvas, $750. Available. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Right now we are all in an Underworld together. The Underworld is not a place but a state of being, full of dangers, ghosts and monters. We are traveling as pilgrims through it, and the robbers and tricksters are gathering, as well as the saints and helpers. The global quarantine is our Underworld.
I learned a lot about how to navigate the Quarantine by studying the mythical Underworld/s.
Follow the rules if you want to survive. In the Underworld, to get out, you mustn’t eat food, go in the wrong direction, or look back. In the Quarantine, follow the rules.
In the Underworld, you are at the lowest point of personal identity. You are at your blurriest; your Great Things just don’t matter as much. If you are Jonah in the belly of the whale, your grape crop is not on your mind. Survive the half-light and the long night.
In the Underworld, you are trapped until time or a god lets you go, or you go through the right fragile opening of chance. You really are imprisoned; to pretend otherwise is to risk a naive reaction that will have disastrous results. You can only comply and be aware.
In the Underworld, you are actually in the lowest part of the Hero’s Journey, the monomyth behind human life that was popularized by Joseph Campbell. As humans, we experience this as grief, depression, paralysis and heartbreak. It is most unpleasant. In the chart below, life is like an iceberg: most lies below the surface. Only a small part of our time is in the ordinary material world. Americans are not good at below-the-surface thinking. We want to be heroically on the mountaintop, in the sunlight, at all times. My Over Underworld paintings have a very high horizon that reflects this often unacknowledged reality. I also put it ladders to connect the Under with the Over. We are in the crisis, the trial, the belly. It is a temporary, and necessary, state. The hope is that we go on to the next stages as a people, and as individuals. In the Over Underworld process paintings below, I tried eerie black and white paint sketches at the top… the road into the Underworld. They were beautiful but there was no real way to affix them. The black and white compositions were turned into individual paintings and left me long ago. There is only one of these large paintings left now, I think it might have been a seed or nucleus for the next work.
The whole world is in a chysalis of dissolution and re-forming. We have no idea what will come out at the end. Joseph Campbell said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” I tried to make the unformed lower parts of the paintings as beautiful and ambiguous as possible to hint at the beauty possible in the Underworld.
There may be a treasure hidden in the Quarantine Underworld for us, but we will have to travel carefully through it to discover it. Be well, Suzanne
This is the sixth Over Underworld release, a online art exhibit of paintings and sketches in March 2020. Featured art: Over Underworld: Raven, acrylic on canvas, 36″ x 48″, $1750. Available. Contact email@example.com
I’m doing storytelling from the beginning Cantos of Dante’s Inferno today. I’ll be on Facebook Live at Saltworkstudio Facebook at 10 AM, 1 PM and 5PM Pacific Time. Join me for some Dante sketches and their stories! I’ll only post one sketch now as a preview.
We are all waiting now. The ancient is new again. Ancient metaphors bring light to modern vision. Thank you for joining me in my Over Underworld project. Suzanne
This is the fifth Over Underworld release, a online art exhibit of paintings and sketches in March 2020. Featured art: Pages from my Dante’s Inferno sketchbook. Not for sale.
Events in 2020
March 25, Wednesday, is Dante Day in Italy, a new annual national holiday to honor Dante. I will be storytelling from my Dante sketchbook at Saltworkstudio via Facebook Live. See event for more details. FB live times: 10 AM, 1PM and 5 PM Pacific Time.
This is the fourth Over Underworld release, a online art exhibit of paintings and sketches in March 2020. Featured art: Pages from my Dante’s Inferno sketchbook, Cantos 1 and 2.
Since Italy has its first national Dante holiday this year on March 25, I’m releasing Dante sketches instead of paintings for the next few posts. May celebrating his poetry help Italy heal .
We are Dante. The poem opens to a scene of attack and menace. The lion is ambition to rule, the despot. The leopard is worldly luxury and lust, hedonism, consumerism. The wolf of avarice, of greed, is always hungry. After she eats, after feeding, she is hungrier than before, literally insatiable. Dante is lost in the woods, and all is lost.
I choose to see Dante as a guide through Underworlds, the times when we are trapped, in despair, lost, yet we know we are somehow on a journey, a lonely road. We need our guides. Virgil is Wisdom, who guides us through the “arduous and savage”way.
He also calls on his beloved Beatrice, who has died and gone to heaven. She appears with her girlfriends: Rachel, who symbolizes contemplation, and Lucia, who is clear vision, eyesight, and light. They indicate their approval of his journey, and then we don’t see them again for a long time. They are all making a brief visit from heaven. Hell is not their style.
So gather your friends: Wisdom from the past, Light, Meditation, Divine Love. Dante needed his beloveds to help him continually trust that he would have guidance during his pilgrimage . I noted that “Hell is forgetting that there is a paradise.” Keep to your dream-path. It’s actually a Divine Comedy, even if we walk through Tragedy along the Way. Suzanne
Featured work: Pages from my Dante’s Inferno illustrated notes. Not for sale.You may share this freely.
Events in 2020
March 25, Wednesday, is Dante Day in Italy, a new annual national holiday to honor Dante. I will be storytelling from my Dante sketchbook at Saltworkstudio via Facebook Live. See event for more details. FB live times: 10 AM, 1PM and 5 PM.
This is the third installment of the Over Underworld art exhibit, a virtual release of paintings and sketches in March 2020.
Featured art: Pages from my Dante’s Inferno sketchbook, earlier circles of Hell
The Underworld is not necessarily Hell. But, sometimes we get lost somewhere Not Good, like a Twilight Zone episode. It happened to Dante. For the past year I have been doing a close reading of Dante and making a sketchbook of visual notes. They are not illustrations, but ways to help me remember what I’ve learned.
Reading Dante is like Shakespeare or the Bible; it endlessly unfolds. But I’ll post a few pages from the notebook with some of my observations.
I’ve made up several lists of rules for going through the Underworld from reading Dante. First, a tour guide is worth paying for. Virgil leads Dante through, but can’t go with him to Paradise, as he is a Heathen, but is a good friend. I discovered that Dante loves his non-Christian geniuses of the ancient days, but has a problem with them, as the Church said they were consigned to hell. What to do, what to do?
He makes a beautiful green garden in hell so that these pre-Christian immortals can hang out! The petals of the flower hold the names of his special people. I began to be interested in painting themes from this Canto. I didn’t want to do paintings of the Seven Deadly Sins, but I discovered the Seven Liberal Virtues– top right corner– which are the antidotes for these sins, and am working on an abstract series from them.
Last year I went to the Library of Congress and got to see original Blake lithographs of Dante’s Inferno in the rare books reading room. Here is my pencil copy of Blake’s print, made in the Library, and my LOC library card.
Plagues were a fact of life in the 13th and 14th century. But Dante saw the worst infection as a moral plague infesting his time, with politics destroying peaceful structure and ripping Florence apart. This next sketch features a wasp from his description of demons flying up like swarms of hornets.
This is the Canto that orders, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” I was surprised to find that there was also strong message to live fully when you are alive on earth in the same section! In all that darkness, there is always light somewhere in Dante. Suzanne
Featured work: Pages from my Dante’s Inferno illustrated notes. Not for sale.
This is the second installment of the Over Underworld art exhibit, a virtual release of paintings in March 2020.
Featured art: The Sky is Falling on the Little Red Hen
I’m here in coronavirus lockdown in Sonoma County, California, watching our collective sky fall. In 2019, I did a series of small works that reflected the political situation. When I do these paintings, I just really let anything happen, but normally a fairy tale or folk tale or aphorism starts to emerge, combined with images from my daily life. I don’t know how or why these paintings happen. I try to paint first, analyze later.
The Little Red Hen in the story was the worker who could not get any help to make bread from all the farmyard animals. Nonetheless, everyone wanted to eat the bread when she was done. It seems to be an original American fable not based in European storytelling. The link is to a 1918 version of the tale.
The Sky is Falling involves another hen, Henny-Penny, which must be why the two stories melted together in my painting brain. The Sky is Falling is as apt a metaphor for our current toxic political crisis as I’ve seen. It is a nasty and violent story of trying to have your urgent message of emergency and disaster heard by The King (Trump)and being eaten alive along the way by his rich henchman, the devious propagandist named Foxy-Woxy! The link to the version I’ve given you has illustrations by Arthur Rackham. Both tales are worth re-reading.
The painting implies a reordering of the world. The gold of the good is fractured and falling down the sky. An ominous figure in the right corner is scheming on Henny-Penny’s egg– try to eat something he has not produced. There may be a weeping eye in the sky, if a god is looking on.
I actually do have a little red hen in my five-hen free-range urban flock. She’s named Hedy Lamar, is a bantam Cochin chicken with feather “slippers” on her feet, and lets me carry her around. She lays adorable little bantam eggs.
5 chicken eggs and a Coturnix domestic quail egg
Peach blossom garden blooms
Hedy Lamar, my Little Red Hen
At the end of The Sky is Falling, the little red hen looks at the massacre around her and “crawls out of her burrow” because she has to get productive and lay an egg! Our hopeful vision is that we all need to get to our small creations to start to bring the good back to the falling down sky. Stay safe in your shelter and enjoy your “burrow,” but don’t forget to lay your “egg.” Make your little contribution to the normal and good. Folktales and history both say it has all happened before. It’s our turn of the wheel now. Suzanne
This is the first installment of the Over Underworld art exhibit, a virtual release of paintings in March-April 2020.
I’m an artist, not a mystic, but I love to reflect on symbols. An abstraction has kidnapped our world, the coronavirus, so it now exists as our shared global symbol. Examining the metaphorical side of the coronavirus doesn’t mean we are escaping or ignoring the scientific; it means that we can be human and turn it around like an orb in our hands, exploring shades of meaning, comfort, fear and awe in it. If we seek myth and meaning, we don’t have to scrub terror away from our minds.
The virus is the corona, the crown, related to the sun, to kings, the orb that unites all of humanity and gives life. The sun is the heart, is play and fun, is wild nature in full summer bloom, the petals around the sunflower. In the Tarot deck, the Sun card shows a walled garden in which children and animals play– the original divine and protected innocence, Paradise.
Does the ball of sunflowers remind you of anything?
But the corona is what shows when there is a total eclipse of the sun, and we are experiencing this darker sun symbol. An eclipse was terrifying in ancient times. Many images from past cultures are very consonant with our experience of the coronavirus.The images are of monsters– wolves, dragons, heavenly dogs, pumas, frogs, giant snakes, insects– eating the sun, the source of life, like the spread of the virus. I saw the total eclipse of the sun in 2017, and the sky chill that descended came from a deep, instinctive place.
I am doing a ten-painting series on the Tree of LIfe, a mystical Jewish metaphor that spread throughout European culture. It is a series of orbs connected by pathways, and is a positive metaphor for continuous creation, types of ethical experience, and joyful participation in the whole. But there is also a tradition of the darker sun, a sort of shadow side to each of the ten positions. The dark sun, as a polar opposite to the vital sun/heart, prevents us from experiencing The Sun realm. Light, beauty, joy, play, trust, and a connection to the heart is replaced by consuming fear and suspicion and survival angst– the dark corona.
To reconnect to our selves, our bright Sun, we need to consciously focus on those things which are obscured: safe community, art, aesthetics, enterainment, kids, pleasure, nature, beauty, and the bright and protective sides of our chosen religions and deities. It is our riddle how we will do this, but the Italians singing from their balconies have the right idea! I suggest making a lot of noise to drive away the demons, preferably with our own instruments, pots, pans and voices. Even to the present day, after a total solar eclipse, astronomers at the Griffith Observatory dance, yell, and beat pots and pans.
The sky is falling, as it always has. Don’t get eaten by any giant frogs. Stay loving, dance with life, pet your animals, walk in nature, and use those pots and pans. Suzanne
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.