Thursday, May 25, 2017

Walking Alone

"POE XV - Traditions"
21" x 21" acrylic on paper
It's almost June and my last post was in January. I spent a lot of time this past winter thinking about the peoples of the desert southwest, reading books and getting prepared for a week long tour of the Chaco Canyon area of AZ and NM. The "ancient ones", the people called "anastasi" by many, became my focus, to the exclusion of all else. In April, back home from the tour, I began to sketch down some ways I could express what I learned, saw and felt.

Those people, those ancient ones, can only be studied by what they created and left behind. There is amazing stone work, buildings 4 and more stories tall, tucked into cliffs and on top of  mesas. There is pottery, several types, scraps of weavings, remains of murals. The people lived and built in relatively small numbers and then vanished. Archaeologists match the departure with a 50 year period of drought.

Today both the Hopi and the Navajo claim that arid and rocky land. The two tribes live in an uneasy balance. The Hopi, far fewer in number, literally live on reservations surrounded by the Navajo. The Navajo have embraced much of the culture of the Europeans. The Hopi, smaller in  number and much more insulative, secretive, have resisted, to a point.

"POE XVI - Traditions Witnessed"
21" x 21" acrylic on paper
Hopi culture has a legend that when lines crisscross the sky, times will end (at least for the Hopi) and so the "hardliners" (pun intended) live in Old Oraibi without electric power lines coming up from the valley nearby. I visited Old Oraibi and noticed the solar panels on the roofs of some of the dwellings along with the tv satellite dishes. There is no running water, no sewer, no electricity. And small luxuries creep in, regardless. The people of Old Oraibi exist in a far more fragile and marginal way than their claimed ancestors, the anastasi. They barely exist selling artwork and trinkets to the tourists. They still live in stone structures but lack the skills to rebuild them, so one by one those places crumble. They still practice ceremonies that hark back hundreds of years. And every year there are fewer and fewer of them.

In contrast, the Navajo move more easily within our European based culture. They understand how to negotiate with our government, how to change in exchange for those dollars the tourists bring. One of the hotels I stayed at during my tour was on a Navajo reservation in Chinle. The only difference between that and downtown Flagstaff was that there was no alcohol available. The traditional housing of the Navajo is hogans but most live in European style housing now.

Two paintings so far have come as a result of this specific trip, and there are more planned. I am trying to express what I learned and what I felt. The symbols are my own along with the Hopi and Navajo. Both tribes believe that there are 4 sacred mountains and assign colors also associated with corn (white, blue, yellow and red) to each mountain. This much at least they agree on. The Hopi's directions are NE, SE, NW and SW. Navajo are N, S, E, W. They disagree on up and down: Hopi believe they originate from the center of the earth and Navajo believe it is the sky. There are four sacred or traditional plants: corn, beans, squash and tobacco.

What I want to show in my paintings are my feelings that as strong as their beliefs are, I think their time is ending. This is part of the whole message of the "Peoples of the Earth" series which began in 2015. It isn't just the Hopi and the Navajo whose time is running. People are stretching and straining and tearing at the very fabric of life on which we depend. When I paint in this series (not everything I paint is part of this) I often feel very lonely. Will anyone understand or even care about what I'm saying? Is it important that they do? I walk alone here, because there are things I must put say and my primary means of expression is paint.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Measuring Progress Over Time Part II

"Journey - Feather Moon II" 21"x21" poured watercolor
In April 2015, at the Intensive Studies Seminar at Taos, NM, Katherine Chang Liu challenged me to figure out how to combine my non-representational gestural marks with my love of pouring paint.  "I plan everything I do" Katherine told  me. "I don't have a lot of time to paint and I don't want to waste the time I have." That brief conversation changed my approach to painting. I could not get those words out of my head. She plans those beautiful collages and paintings?!  I look back to that exchange almost 2 years ago and realize now how much it influenced my thinking and changed my approach to painting.

"Journey - Feather Moon I" 21"x21" poured watercolor
For two years now I have explored shapes and symbols that have meaning to me and that help me express the thoughts and feelings about people and the earth that began to crystallize during my trips to Arizona and New Mexico in 2015. I've developed a symbolic language of my own, taken shapes and arranged them and poured a LOT of paint. 100 paintings, collages and weavings are on my inventory list for those two years and more than half of them are planned poured watercolor or acrylic.

While I've identified and learned to use many symbols, I had yet to figure out how to incorporate my gestural marks.  A couple weeks ago I took several sheets of paper and using a marker I just made large sweeping gestural marks. Each was distinct. So I looked at the mark I find most often in past paintings which was the very first paper I had marked and then I tried to figure out how I could incorporate that sweeping gesture in a painting plan. Once I changed the mark from a line to a shape I immediately saw how that could replace the twisted energy lines I'd used in earlier paintings. Now I had my own gestural energy shape!
"Feather Moon II" 21"x14"
poured watercolor

"Feather Moon II" was completed on Feb. 3, 2016. It is one of my personal favorite paintings of the past year. These two new paintings take the same symbols and put them into a square format which required a different composition. Here is the symbolism: feather is journey, moon is cycle (not necessarily a period of time), stars are wishes, the coins are the payment or the reward. The swirl is, as I said, energy. Now you can make up your own story, cast your feathers into the winds, make your wishes, pay your price and reap your reward. Happy New Year everyone.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Measuring Progress Over Time

"End of Summer VII" 21" x 21" 
I finished a painting today.  It's a little like giving birth, a sense of exhaustion along with "WOW! Look what I made!" Not all paintings arrive with that impact, this particular one did.  Facebook has been offering up photos from the past and one caught my eye, a photo I posted of artwork I was working on one year ago.  I was surprised when I saw it. What a measure or marker it made compared to where I am right now.  It's a measure of  how my thoughts have matured and the expression through painting right along with it in one short year.

"Peoples of the Earth IX" 21" x 21" 
Over this past 12 months I've started to use weaving in my paintings.  I was very influenced by my visit in 2015 to the US desert southwest, both Arizona and New Mexico.  Those visits started me thinking of how much the human race has impacted the earth.  I saw how a single tire track through the desert landscape could alter it because of the fragile microsystem on the surface, how footprints (hoof prints) would only create pools, tire tracks create rivers.  I saw how civilizations vanished because they tried to control their environment which failed utterly as conditions changed.

"Weaving the Desert" 
The weaving represented, from the first tentative uses, the story of how we humans are tied to the land and to nature and how, because of our influence, the weaving of human life on earth and earth itself starting to pull apart, become distorted. Within this year, as well, is an increasing sense of my personal age, how I am in my ending years.  All of this is being conveyed in all that I create.

A short series called "Peoples of the Earth" began.  It quickly featured a barred moon, a barren tree of life. Fran Larsen challenged me to understand all the symbols I use.  Catherine Chang Liu told me to plan my work, not to waste time hoping something will turn out and to combine my love of spontaneous with the discipline of pouring paint.  Both of those ladies have influenced my approach to  my work through this past year.  The second series became "End of Summer".  It doesn't just suggest it's autumn - it also suggests the end of my passage through life.

The Journey Series of the past 4 years continues, I think, just with closer looks and a little more discipline.  We all have friends who help us on our way.  I have numerous.  I am very blessed.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

On Creativity and Belief

From my Morning Pages journal of January 29, 2001, I found this entry on creativity and belief:

"Peoples of the Earth XII"
…Big wind storm this morning, trees outside are really rocking, clouds are screaming across the sky. The branches that form the lady’s face in the tree outside are moving, making it look almost animated, as if she’s moving and talking, laughing. I could have a conversation with her this morning. “Good morning, Lady” I say. “Good morning, sweetheart” she replies. “I see it’s a windy day so you are able to move and speak with me.” “I can speak with you always. Just usually in the whisper of light breezes or hushed in soft air flows. Today I can sing and shout and you can notice that I am doing so.” “Yes, I can hear you way up here in my house. The sound of your laughter comes in through the door and through the skylight.”

“Tell me” I say “who are you?” “Why I am as you see me” she replies, “the Lady in the Tree is the name you give me and that is who I am, nothing more. I see you every day that you see me. If you don’t see me, then I don’t exist.” “You mean you exist only when I see you, the rest of the time you are not there?” “Right, the rest of the time, the thing that’s me is just branches on a tree. You see me, you give me life.” “Huh. Aren’t I powerful though! Like painting, I create you when I see you and that’s when you come to life.” “That’s right.”

"Peoples of the Earth IX"
“Well, this is interesting, having a conversation with a tree.  What should I ask you? What do you see up there?” “That’s two questions, which one do you want answered?” “How about: what do you see up there?” “I see the earth and sky, birds, flowers. I watch the neighbors come and go, I peak in your window and watch you write in that book, (and) when you look up I smile and wink.” “Aren’t you smiling and winking all the time?” “No, just when you look up. You can’t prove otherwise. When you look at the page, I only exist in your head.” “So I’m purposefully not look at you, I’m still talking to you and you’re still talking to me.” “I know. People would say you’re crazy or having delusions, having a conversation with a Tree Lady, whose face you won’t even look at right now.” “There, I peeked to see you laughing and nodding and smiling.” “Yes, I know, I saw you.”

“So what” Tree Lady says, “would you say to the accusation that you’re crazy having a conversation with a face you made up by seeing a space in some tree branches. You’ve even named me, given me a voice; you must be crazy!” “You and I both know the truth of this conversation” I say, laughing.  “I have three blank pages to fill every day and I don’t have great 3-page-long thoughts every day, so if it takes an imaginary (there! I admitted it!) conversation with a lady’s face I imagine I see in the tree branches (outside the window where I write) to fill up these lines, then, yah sure you betcha I’m gonna having a nice long chat with the Tree Lady.  Or with the pen. Or with the chair. Or with the coffee cup which announces ‘I’m 40 and damn proud of it!’ I only need to keep that cup another 28 years and it will be true. The cup will be 40. I hear the whistle of your laugh at the door, Tree Lady. I see your lips move and your eye wink. Belief is a powerful thing.”

I end this story with a quote by Mary Oliver from her poem 'The World I Live In' : 
"only if there are angels in your head will you ever, possibly, see one."   

Friday, July 29, 2016

Stretching, Reaching, Growing

In June I took two consecutive workshops at Sitka Center for Arts and Ecology near Lincoln City, OR. Neither of the workshops were about painting. The first was "Poetry Meets Weaving," a 3 day mixed media class led by Carolyn Drake. The second was "Landscape and Memory," a 2 day writing workshop led by Nancy Linnon.  

I liked the concept of weaving to poetry, especially because I'm noticing, reading, and trying to write verse. I thought the writing class might be beneficial for the same reasons. For the weaving class, I chose Elizabeth Bunsen's delightful poem from the book "Storytelling With Collage":
once upon a time 
there was a girl who lived by a lake
whose pockets gathered seedpods and stones
dancing barefoot in moonlight was her habit
sunshine sparkling through laundry gave her delight
she sang with the wrens
the crows called her by name
clouds shared their secrets on her walks
one slow and quiet day
she circled
round and round and round
a bluebird dropped a feather
a feather striped with sky and sea
and tipped with a piece of the moon
of course
this feather found her pocket
the girl smiled
and dreamed a dream of blue

In the writing workshop I discovered that my habit of writing 3 pages every morning made me very comfortable doing the spontaneous 10-20 minute writing assignments as well as reading them aloud when it was my turn to do so. Until those workshops, I had not imagined myself  a writer or someone who made artwork to poetry. Now I know I can do both. My self-image has been stretched and has grown over the summer. I hope your summer has been just as fruitful.          

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Value of a Good Workshop - Meucha and Linda Rothchild Ollis

Linda and I are both expressive and intense.
One difference is she needs a mic
(very soft spoken and gentle) and I do not.
I’ve just returned from a 3 day workshop with Linda Rothchild Ollis at Menucha Retreat in Corbett, OR.  The workshop was called “Stronger Design: Before and After” and the description fit with what I felt I need at this time.  The workshop was full at 18 artists.  It began late Sunday afternoon May 15th and ended Wednesday afternoon, May 18th.

When I signed up in January I was initially put off with the idea of sharing a room with complete strangers. Menucha is owned by the Presbyterian Church and, I discovered, run much like the Methodist church camps of my youth (except no tents, outhouses or homesick kids). One big benefit of holding the workshop there was that I was in the same building, whether in the workshop, in the dining hall or in my bed.   I shared a room with only one person (some had 2 or 3). The room had a bathroom right outside the door.  We roomies were respectful of each other’s privacy and nocturnal rhythms. Meals were very good with generous servings. We all volunteered as table “hosts” for two meals and I found that being a “table mommy” was a lot of fun with very little work.  We could leave our materials and possessions around in the studio or public areas and not worry.

My friend and table mate was Mary Rollins who took
this great shot looking down at the workshop area from
a balcony above.  
At the time I began the workshop I had just finished pouring a painting modeled after a collage I’d done a week earlier which I called “Peoples of the Earth I”.  During the first day I thought about and worked on 2 sketches for other derivatives. However I never actually started the paintings.  The process Linda took us through was completely absorbing. I let go of all other plans and ideas and just went with the flow.  We began with analysis of award winning paintings, using tissue paper to see large shapes, values and composition (without the trivial detail).  Then we stepped it up by evaluating our own work and learned how to expand our design skills using nonrepresentational pencil, paint and collage techniques. 

I came home with several thoughts.  I had become too focused on producing paintings that might lead to the next competition entry.  My work had become tedious which is reflected by the end product.  Linda taught several interesting methods designed to increase awareness of potential compositional forms, exercises designed to (if you will forgive me) “expand our minds”.  I had forgotten how to “play”, how to paint and create without concern about whether I would produce a competition worthy product or a painting someone wanted to buy. I came home excited, rejuvenated, and ready to add some new practices to my routine, try some new materials and, perhaps most important, I was out of my rut. 

From the first day I heard about the workshop to the day I got home (yesterday) I had a feeling that some powerful guiding energy was moving me along, presenting just the right stuff at just the right time. Linda proved to be just the right fit, in tune with where I am, and just the right instructor.  We had 18 participants and they were all positive.  The energy that flowed around in that group was nothing short of astonishing.   The work produced was as varied as the group and the talent in that room was amazing.  And Linda just gave and gave of her time and herself.  We all benefited.  We all came home blessed.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Value of Negative Spaces

"Vernal Equinox II"
the negative sky shapes
holds space for the trees
Recently I attended a meeting of a local critique group.  One of the participating artists had some very nice pieces with good use of clear color against neutrals and large negative spaces. The paintings were of children in various poses.  In my opinion the artist had a nice sense of placement of the figures on the page, both in size and location, creating lovely “negative” spaces that contributed to the “story” the piece was suggesting. Many of the critique group suggested that the pieces cropped, tighter and tighter, in towards the figures.  I disagreed.  I felt the artist did a great job of creating more interest in the subject through her use of generous negative space.  For instance, one painting was of a very young child seated feet out as toddlers do, finger drawing on the ground.  The figure was in the bottom part of a vertical sheet of paper leaving the top half empty.  To me that space told the story of the child growing and standing and filling that space. Cutting that space out lost that part of the story and reduced my interest in the painting. 

"Wishes On The Wind V"
lots of negative space
at play here
 Later I was thinking about the value and contribution negative spaces can make in a painting.  A simple definition of “negative space” might be the areas around a subject. Not all paintings have a “subject”. Not all have a “focus” either. For those works that do, the negative space is what is left if you cut out the subject.  It can be very little or a lot.  There are artists whose work is as much a work in the negative spaces as in the positive, or subject matter.  A few I can quickly name are Will Barnet, Milton Avery, Modigliani and Mary Carlton. Is negative space a component of design? Yes! It’s part of “shape”. Composition is simply an arrangement of shapes. Shapes themselves can be busy, quiet, light, dark, soft, hard, small, large, simple, complex, organic, geometric, singular, repetitious, etc.

As an artist I LOVE shapes. They are spaces that can be empty or be filled with color or texture or to contain line or to be defined by line. They can blend smoothly into one another or contrast sharply. After the experience at the critique I am more aware of the positive value of a negative space, that space I'm creating with all my other shapes. I will use them, create them, more thoughtfully in the future.