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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Susan and Carole have been participating in Bay Area Urban Sketchers Sketchcrawls. Carole had a lovely setup with her self-designed travel watercolor set and everything clipped and attached to a small drawing board. Susan loaned me her tiny Pocket Palette to try. I’m terrible at this kind of sketching, so it was good to do it on a Foolish day when everything was allowed. This sort of sketching from life takes plein air to a new level. It is meditative and process-oriented. My style tends to be more of an illustrated journal, with writing and collage. I kept a sketchbook through Spain, and at other times, but am entirely untutored in the finer points of more realistic rendering, and am hoping to improve.
Sketchbook, Suzanne Edminster– Suzanne and Scott in Rome
Sketchbook, Suzanne Edminster
Suzanne Edminster, sketch at Getty Center
Fears of Sketching
I might as well make a checklist of my sketching fears, and get them out of the way as soon as possible. On Saturday I accomplished all of them.
Fear of doing a really lousy sketch. Check. Around 5 times.
Fear of doing a really lousy sketch while others sketching are doing better ones. Check.
Fear of just not being up to the task— moving figurative subjects. Check.
Fear of messing up pages in a bound notebook. They will always be there as flubs. Check.
Fear that if I share the messy process of learning, I will be seen as less accomplished in my painting. Check.
I was happy to have some of my sketching doctors give me a critique, over Prosecco and prosciutto at the Underwood in Graton. Here are some of Susan’s sketches from the day. My Rx: mechanical pencil, slower more continuous lines in ink, some media suggestions. (I’m hearing that a new-to-me brush pen favorite is the Pentel.) I’m taking an online sketching class from Marc Taro Holmes which is really excellent. There is a new wave of arts education and it lives online. What if we all came to art school with many skills and techniques, and the ways and means, spiritual and practical, of living as an artist were taught by generous, seasoned masters?
I want to sketch people in life, not in a figure class. I think my best sketches recently were done in DMVs. It took me 3 tries to get a replacement for the license which was lost or stolen. Learning to sketch is a metaphor for letting a new identity emerge. And it’s not always comfortable.
Big Old Nature
My artist friend Laura Foster Corben and I went into a grove of coastal old-growth redwoods on a misty, rainy day. It used to have the worlds tallest tree at around 380 feet. Now taller trees have been measured, but these seem tall enough to me. I was struck by the primitive nature of these trees. Inverting the black and white lets me see the almost palm-like form of these titans in Montgomery Woods State Natural Preserve.
The eerie magic of the giant redwood forest puts those sketching fears in their proper, tiny place.