Thursday, February 10, 2011

Public Personal Pep Talk/Smack Down

Norman Rockwell (American, 1894-1978).
Artist Facing Blank Canvas (Deadline), 1938.
I can see it in my head.

Painting is about paint, not about thinking or talking or writing. It happens the way it wants to, in its own time.

Painting is like that relationship with the person who wouldn't be "tied down" in any conventional sense: maddening, passionate, doomed.

All the best paintings are the ones that haven't happened yet.

Insert additional palliatives (i.e., excuses) here.


Monday, January 11, 2010

Play is Serious (part two): The Hospital

A couple months back, Trinity had to spend two days and a night in the hospital. Nothing too serious, but whenever she gets sick she has trouble breathing, and this time they wanted to keep a closer eye on her than usual. She found herself surrounded by nurses and doctors and ladies bringing her meals on trays. She loved every minute of it. She even told the doctors knock knock jokes like this old chestnut:

Knock knock.
Who's there?
Banana who?
Banana eyeball.

(No, it doesn't make sense. She's only three, remember?) Anyway, the experience showed me that, for Trinity, "the play's the thing." By that I mean not only that there is a good measure of theatrics in the way she socializes, but also that, for her, the theater of sociability is pure fun. Those weren't nurses and doctors and lunch ladies: they were her audience. Not the common rabble of her audience at home, but a new adoring set of fans who often stopped in just to see her because, not only is it fun for her, she's damned good at it, too.

While Trinity held forth from the little positionable stage of her hospital bed, David was at home staging a drama of his own. This one included a small hospital that I helped him construct out of paper, and a number of animals whose legs were bandaged with yarn. They were taken to and from the hospital in the back of a little truck, and the "doctor" tended to each of them with great care.

It strikes me that artists also perform these kinds of "operations": they take what is mysterious, maybe scary, and they find a way to think about it that is their own. They create worlds around what they don't fully understand -- Picasso's Guernica, Hopper's Nighthawks -- and invite us to take up residence, however briefly.

The hospital is still, occasionally, in use. Just last night Batman and Robin were rushed in following a fierce battle with the Penguin while Trinity, our little troubadour, related the incident in song.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dot Dot Dot

I've started working on a series of very tiny collages, not much bigger than postage stamps. As with most of my recent collage work, the process is simple: I cut one bird shape out from a two-sided image in a bird guide and lay it over text. I've been working on these types of things for a while now. Here's an example from a recent series of twelve collages (for these I cut out part of the image itself):

I've always been a lot more interested in what goes unstated or unseen...the things that are left to the imagination, and make the book, the picture, the song, a personal, intimate thing. Given this, it will come as no surprise that the ellipsis is my very favorite punctuation mark. And, lucky for me and my collages, the ellipsis seemed to be Daphne du Maurier's favorite as well. You can barely turn a page of The King's General without seeing one. This may explain why I love her books so much -- there are holes and shadows, places where language falls and fails, and so much has to be created in the reader's mind. The ellipsis, like the trail of bread crumbs Hansel and Gretel dropped in the forest, points one in a direction but stops just short of taking one by the hand...

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Fine Art of Neglect

I spend a lot of time painting. I spend a lot of time playing with my kids. I spend a lot of time cooking breakfast/lunch/dinner. But what I MOSTLY spend my time doing is neglecting things I should be doing. Sometimes I neglect my students, letting them put down layer upon layer of ugly paint without a word of caution passing my lips. Sometimes I neglect my kids, letting them watch one too many Scooby Doo episodes before finally rounding them up and dumping them in the tub only to neglect them for a few minutes more. I often neglect painting, letting gawky, unfinished work sit on the easel like somebody's Grandpa in his dingy tightie-whities when the doorbell rings. I definitely neglect housework. Who wouldn't? But, in all this neglect, something IS getting accomplished: one lovely daydream after another.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Putting it ALL Together what I find myself doing as I prepare my tenure file (due on September 21!). I decided to update the hoary teaching statement I've been carting around lo these many years, and have begun another, which I thought I'd publish here. All you students out there who know me well can tell me what I'm leaving out, or whether I've told lies...

I’ve taught, and the first thing I did when I taught art, was not to teach art.
Louise Nevelson

I’ve only begun to learn what not to teach. I can teach a few of the eight hundred ways to hold a paintbrush, but I can’t teach a student to let her hand dance with the brush like Monet did, never approaching the canvas the same way twice. I can teach a student when to use poppy oil, and in what quantities, to make pigment approximate flesh, but I can’t teach him to how to paint a portrait as breath-takingly present as those of Rembrandt. And so what I “teach” my students really amounts to this: to say “yes” with curiosity and vigor to all questions; to think originally and paint with integrity; to find, as they internalize the techniques and concepts associated with the craft of painting, their own way to art.

Saying “yes” should be easy, but it’s stunningly difficult for most students. To be smart is to be a critic, they think, and they scorn enthusiasm as a sign of naiveté. So enthusiasm (creating it, modeling it, sustaining it) guides my preparation for any course. Hard work that pays dividends can breed enthusiasm, as can surprise, and I find that these two strategies are the ones I use most often. Especially at the introductory level, I engage the former strategy by creating technically challenging assignments that build in complexity over the course of the semester, encouraging accomplishment through process. I know I’ve succeeded when I hear a student remark, on critique day, “I didn’t think I could do it,” to which I always reply: “I knew that you could.” Part of the responsibility for creating a challenging environment lies in maintaining defiant, perhaps quixotic, belief in potential. Whether that belief is justified or rewarded is somewhat beside the point. The latter strategy – surprise – requires that I design each class session in such a way that students can rarely take it for granted. So whether we’re taking an impromptu trip to the museum or drawing blindfolded to trip-hop, there should be a sense that we are all making discoveries together – that we are all (myself included) absolute beginners.

Chuck Close, an artist famous for his enormous portraits of fellow artists, once had occasion to tell Willem de Kooning that he’d painted more de Koonings than de Kooning. This is a useful anecdote for advanced undergraduate and graduate students who struggle (as they put it) to “find their style." It takes a mountain of self-knowledge (not to mention experience) to think originally, to feel comfortable in one’s own shoes. The work that students produce at this level is largely self-directed, and much of what I do amounts to giving permission, while also making frequent reference to historical and contemporary artists and painting practices that will feed students' process. Frequent group and individual critiques give students the opportunity to reflect on their work and establish a way of talking about it that enriches their own, and their viewers’, understanding.

Finally, I encourage all my students to separate the processes of thinking (which typically means overthinking) and painting. “Thinking” in painting should be thinking through paint: that is to say, the process itself should be a particular kind of knowledge that is distinct from the processes of reflection, criticism, and contextualization (though these are quite necessary after the fact). Above all, I hope to teach my students that there is tremendous joy and deep satisfaction to be found in striving after art; the words I hear myself utter most often are: just begin.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Night-night, Sleep Tight

What is the food that creativity thrives on?  I guess it's different for everyone.  I used to be an "early to bed, early to rise" kind of girl, grooving on the early start and painting on a 9 - 5.  And I took a certain pleasure in reading about all the artists who did the same:  Jennifer Bartlett, Elizabeth Murray...up at the crack of dawn to put in a good day's work.  And they have kids, just like me.  
Now here I am, two beers and a few hours past everyone else's bedtime, still glowing with some kind of 120 watt bulb that manages to illuminate the creative process for me, if only until I fall from fatigue.  What is it about a box of paints, a piece of paper, and some good music I've never heard before?  I can't help but feel like this is the elixir, the fountain of's like love, or jumping off the roof of your garage for the very first time...

Monday, August 3, 2009

Closing the Windows, Closing the Doors

"A painting is like the facade of a house...and you're like a janitor who goes around systematically trying to close all the windows and doors -- but when you get to the top floor to close the last window, a wind blows open the one on the first landing.
You rush down and close that one, and then one on the middle floor blows open and you rush to close that.But when you've closed all the entries to the house, then the painting is closed -- not that it's finished, it's just that you can't enter it any longer."  (Graham Nickson)