Over Underworld 8: Quarantinis in the Afterlife

Dante notebook, from the Getty Villa Underworld show. Gouache, pen, watercolor, pencil.

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…

A music band of 3 statues. The Sirens or Harpies are underworld creatures. This Siren is singling to a pipe played by a Satyr.

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.

Detail of phallic grape bunch on wine vessel

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.

Scene from Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu

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.

Many entries to the Underworld were portrayed as steep descents. From the Dante notebook.

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 saltworkstudio@gmail.com.
View 7 previous Over Underworld Art Exhibit paintings, sketches, and essays here.

Saltworkstudio Events in March-April 2020: Over Underworld: New Work, a virtual art exhibit of paintings and sketches released on SaltworkstudioFacebook, and Instagram.  #dantesketchbook #overunderworld  #saltworkstudio

 

 

Over Underworld 7: How To Placate Underworld Beasts

Bitch, Suzanne Edminster, acrylic, oil, graphite and ink on panel, 16″ x 22″

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.

Painting starts, my “negatives

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.

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.
Suzanne Edminster, illustrated notes on Dante, Canto VI. Cerberus was not only a dog, but a snake/serpent monster, a part of the mythic genetics often omitted today.

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.

Cash Cow, Suzanne Edminster, acrylic mixed media on canvas, 24″ x 24″

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 saltworkstudio@gmail.com.

Events in 2020

March-April 2020: Over Underworld: New Work, a virtual art exhibit of paintings and sketches released on SaltworkstudioFacebook, and Instagram.  #dantesketchbook #overunderworld  #saltworkstudio

Over Underworld 2: The Sky is Falling on the Little Red Hen

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

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The Sky is Falling on the Little Red Hen, acrylic and gold metal leaf on canvas, 16″ x 20″. Private collection, Montreal, Canada

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.

 

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

You may share this freely.  Link:https://saltworkstudio.com/2020/03/19/over-underworld-2-the-sky-is-falling-on-the-little-red-hen/

2020 Events

March-April 2020: Over Underworld: New Work

Virtual Exhibit released by Saltworkstudio, Facebook, and Instagram.

#overunderworld  #saltworkstudio

Backstreet Gallery, where the exhibit is installed, is available for visit by appointment.  Email Saltworkstudio@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Over Underworld 1: Coronavirus as Visual Metaphor

Tree of Life details, Suzanne Edminster, acrylic on canvas

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.

Coronavirus under microscope

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.

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 Little Red Hen. Alternate title: The Sky is Falling. Painting on canvas from 2019. Private collection.

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

You may share this freely.  Link: https://saltworkstudio.com/2020/03/17/over-underworld-1-coronavirus-as-visual-metaphor/

2020 Events

March-April 2020: Over Underworld: New Work

Virtual Exhibit released in the Saltworkstudio Blog, Facebook, and Instagram.  Backstreet Gallery, where the exhibit is installed, is available for visit by appointment.  Email Saltworkstudio@gmail.com

 

 

 

Bird by bird and stroke by stroke

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Suzanne Edminster, Metaphoracard collage, 5″ x 8″. I am teaching my version of this small collage process at Wavy Gravy’s Camp Winnarainbow for Adults in June.

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.”

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Suzanne Edminster, Metaphoracard collage, Dream Beast, 5″ x 8″.

Creative Demand

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My desk for the illustrated Dante notes project. My main reference is a 1944 Illustrated Modern Library edition, with amazing pictures by George Grosz

“A creative person must convince the field.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

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.”

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Suzanne Edminster, illustrated notes on Dante, Canto VI. Cerberus was not only a dog, but a snake/serpent monster, a part of the mythic genetics often omitted today.

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.

Suzanne

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.

First Friday, March 1, 5-8 PM.  Selected SOFA art studios are open; I am.  Drop by to chat.

 

3 Tips on how to keep an illustrated travel sketchbook on the road, even if you “can’t draw”

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A basket of apples in Basque country. The stamps are the the same ones used for Camino “passports.”

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…

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Photo altered and text added with apps
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Storks nesting on top of Spanish church. Photo altered and text added with apps.

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.

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Snow globe and sticky note. I was teaching Moby Dick and Macbeth at the time

 

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Another in the sticky note series. I should do that series again!

 

Tip #2: Use your words and your little scraps of things. Use what you got.

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A plate of paella with cutout collage scallop shell.

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.

 

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The Cafe Moderno, established 1912. Fountain lady and urn.

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, 2018 10:00 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.

 

Getting high, creatively speaking

Salt, detail, Suzanne Edminster, original acrylic on canvas, 48" x 60"
Detail from “Salt”

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.

The Book of Highs, from my library, with four charming blue eggs, from my Coturnix quail.

The Book of Highs: 255 Ways to Alter Your Consciousness Without Drugs, by Edward Rosenfeld, is an likeable little compendium and pretty fun to read.  Written as a list, and illustrated with pop psychedelic-toned graphics, I immediately turned to the segment “Creativity: Reach into yourself, find and make something new.”  The quotes are all from this book.

“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…

Saltworktudio abstract class
My demo painting with initial intuitive marks

 

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.

Salt, detail, Suzanne Edminster, acrylic on canvas
Salt, another detail.

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.

Salt, far left, Suzanne Edminster, acrylic on canvas, 4 feet by 6 feet,
Salt, the final painting, to the far right.

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.

Artistic Failure and the Dangers of Branding

Ikebana, Suzanne Edminster, gold metal leaf and acrylic on canvas, 15″ x 30″. This painting was part of a failed attempt to get into a local gallery.

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.

Goose game, Akua soy ink on paper, a failed monoprint.

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 saltworkstudio@gmail.com with any questions.

 

Rare Blooms and Object Lessons

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My kitchen table, with flowers from my garden

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.

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Parrot tulip one

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.

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Parrot tulip two

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.

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Tulip in decline

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.

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Tulip in decline