Timeout for Art: Mixed Media

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study for ceramic sculpture

Mixed Media is just what it says: a mixture of art-making materials, combined for effect. When combining paint, applied with brushes, with more restrictive drawing tools, it’s impossible to be too rigid in your expectations. When approached with a sense of adventure, it’s a lot of fun, and a good way to loosen up.

Paint, applied roughly, can give texture and “tooth” to the picture plane that will change the way that drawing materials will take to the surface. Some materials – charcoal, graphite and soft pastel, for instance – can be rubbed and smudged to obscure lines. Oil pastels will become liquid when painted over with turpentine or other solvent. Areas that become too dark or dense can be covered with a splash of paint for a fresh start. Marking tools can be used to scratch lines or detail into wet paint. Linens, papers and other collage materials can add another dimension.

The nature of mixed-media presents archival challenges. Oil and water based products do not mix well for the long term. Some papers and other materials break down over time. Those things don’t concern me. Though there are some very good – and very serious – mixed media artists, working in both two and three-dimensional formats, I am not one of them. I enjoy the process of art-making. I appreciate various methods and materials. Mixed Media is a fun way to explore both, in a not-too-serious way!

Beauty

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I love the topic of “beauty” for the opportunity to tell one of my favorite memories.

It happened a long time ago. I was not yet thirty years old, married, with two children. We were living at Corner #16, in North Branch, in the back apartment of a duplex, in a building that had once been the Deerfield Township Hall.

My husband was on his way home from work; I was getting dinner ready. My daughters, aged four and seven, were playing in the next room. They had their dolls spread out over the carpet, and were dressing them in one fancy gown after another.

Barbie dolls, when I was young, were the -very unrealistic and completely unattainable – ideal of feminine beauty. Though my daughters grew up in a more enlightened age, and were exposed to a much broader definition of what it meant to be a girl, Barbie, unfortunately, still held her place.

When I was a child, and well into my teen years, “playing with Barbie dolls” involved long, continuing, soap-opera style story-lines, and entire sections of the bedroom converted into Barbie doll homes, job sites and town. For my little girls, it was mostly just changing their clothes.

One stunning outfit after another would be put on and stripped off the dolls. Any imaginary dialogue was usually just commentary on the outfits. “Oh, Barbie, that looks really beautiful on you!” “Oh, Ken, thank you!”

I casually listened to the girls chattering back and forth as I diced vegetables and put a casserole together. Suddenly Jennifer, the seven-year-old, let out a big sigh. “Katey,” she addressed her little sister wistfully, “Don’t you wish our Mom was beautiful?”

Little Katey, barely four-years-old, and still unable to pronounce the letter V, was thrilled to be included in such a grown-up discussion. She sat up, and slowly nodded.

“Yeeaaah…” came her thoughtful reply, “eben if she’d wear her wedding dress around, it wouldn’t be sooooo bad!”

I imagined the scene: I, with a body that showed the wear of two pregnancies, and my choppy, DIY haircut, would stand at the kitchen door to call my family in to supper. Just for emphasis, I picture myself scratching, Ma Kettle style, at crotch or armpit.

I’d use the sing-song, stretched-out call that my mother taught us to call our brothers and sisters from the far reaches of the yard, garden, orchard or field: “Cooome and Eeeeeeeaaaaaat!!” My daughters would come around the corner of the house from the back yard. They’d stop in their tracks, mouths falling open in awe and admiration.

Because there I would be…with “the gown” on.

Over forty years have passed, and the image still makes me laugh!

Timeout for Art: Line

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The New Little Oxford Dictionary defines line first as a “long, narrow mark traced on surface.” It goes on, of course, to mention a wrinkle, a furrow, a line of people, a line in a script…as well as all of the geometric applications of line.

In art, line is the first, most basic component of any image. Children learn early to drag a line in a circle to make the head of a person. Lines radiate from it to indicate arms and legs. A slash for a mouth, dots for eyes. I can hear the voices of my little daughters: “eye…eye…nose…great big happy smile!” Scribbled lines for hair, or whiskers and, before you know it, a two-year-old has created a reasonably identifiable portrait! Every child does this, I think.

Forty years later, that same human (though not my daughters!) will say, to explain their lack of any artistic ability, “I cant even draw a straight line!” What, I ask you, does a straight line have to do with art? That is geometry. Math. Or, perhaps, architecture. That is not art.

We are soft, fluffy humans living on a round planet filled with curvy and sinuous inhabitants, both moving and still. We see our own unique vision of what’s out there through our own eyes. We interpret it with our own mind, filtered with our individual histories and circumstances. We don’t need straight lines!

Give me, instead, the gracefully curved line, the crabbed line, the aggressive, analytical, or whimsical line. I’ll accept the blurred line, the smudged line, and the erased line. An incised line. An implied line. A dotted line.

Drawings are often used simply as businesslike illustrations to expand on the written word, or as preliminary sketches for painting or sculpture, the “real art.” Because of this, the potential of the line, the most important component part of any drawing, is often overlooked.

A good vocabulary of lines can elevate a simple sketch to the realm of fine art. Where is the tension in a drawing? Let the line reflect it. Where is the weight? Where is the movement? Where can an almost weightless line work to define calm, light, or airiness? In a drawing, lines can tell a story. Let them speak!

Anger

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Anger, at first glance, seems like a pretty straightforward emotion. It’s easy to identify in myself and others.

“I was sooo angry!”

“He really got angry when he heard that.”

“That makes me very angry.”

What is it, really, though? A burst of adrenalin? A raise in blood pressure? A quickening of the pulse? A foot stomp, door slam, red face…a yell? Why am I always so close to tears when I’m angry?

There are times when anger is simply that. It makes me angry when I see someone litter, or hear someone make unkind comments, even if I’m not in a position to let them know.

Sometimes anger serves as a motivator. Over the last several months, I’ve been sending out postcards to my state and federal representatives. I opted for postcards, with no return address, because I don’t want to start a discussion. I’m not looking for a smooth, politically-tainted reply with empty promises or suggestions of progress. It is simply a way to let them know I’m mad, and I’m aware.

“Why, after all these long months, do we still have children who have not been reunited with their parents?? Outrageous!” “Protect our environment!! It matters!” “Protect Social Security!” “Health Care is Important!!” I sign them simply with my name, and the identifier, “a concerned voter.” The messages, a response to feelings of anger and helplessness, help me to feel like I am doing some small thing to support my principles.

Even when anger is not serving an immediate purpose, it is a definite and specific feeling. At other times, though, anger seems like a foil for other feelings.

I was thinking the other day how patient I’ve grown. A dozen times, while I’m trying to work, I’ll be interrupted by one dog or another wanting to go outside, or come back in. Sometimes I feel bothered, but it is not reflected in my words or actions. “Do you have to go outside?” I ask, calmly, followed by, “do you want to come in?” a few moments later.

I know, when my children were small, and the cause of interruption, irritation – even anger – would have shown up in my tone of voice. My frustration would have been evident in the way I opened the door, or the look on my face. That tells me that a show of anger is a means of communication. Every day, as I get up to let a dog out or in, I think, “I wish I had shown this much patience when I had small children.

Anger doesn’t work with my dogs, as they don’t really care if I’m irritated. Rosa Parks fixes me with a steady, lidded gaze. It is the canine equivalent of a nonchalant shrug. It says, “Yes, I peed on the rug, big deal;” or, “if you would simply stop what you’re doing and rub my belly, I wouldn’t have to go to such great lengths to get your attention!” True.

Anger didn’t really work with my children, either, though it made them uncomfortable and it made me feel guilty. After all these years, the guilt is still there; I think that never goes away. When my mother was dying, she said her biggest regret in life was that she hadn’t shown more patience with her children.

Sometimes anger presents itself as the more macho cousin of the true, hidden emotion. Envy or jealousy commonly present themselves as a burning anger. Fear, embarrassment, and other feelings of inadequacy often hide behind a show of anger, too. That may be why I’m always so ready to cry, when I’m angry.

Maybe we just need more accurate categories to define our feelings, more of a sliding scale to grade our level of anger. And maybe we could learn from my little dog, as to how to respond to unjustified anger!

Timeout for Art: Kitsch

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plastic solar flamingo, with frog, on my kitchen window sill

According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms by Michael Clarke, kitsch “is associated with vulgarity and a lack of taste such as are to be found in many tourist souvenirs and in works of art which exhibit similar qualities.”

We’ve all seen them: little sculptures made of acorns, pinecones or sea shells, mounted on slices of wood and stamped with a location; small, mass-produced painted porcelain figurines; knickknacks and tchotchkes that find their way onto shelves and side tables. Unless you’re much better at editing what comes into your home than I am, you probably own a few. Just a glance around my living space revealed a dozen shameful examples.

Jeff Koons is a modern artist that has taken the idea of “kitsch” and turned it on its head. He chooses his subjects from the tackiest examples of mass produced gewgaws, renders them often in materials usually reserved for the finest modern sculptures…then sometimes mass produces them. His work challenges all old ideas of fine art versus low art.

“Popeye” Granite sculpture by Jeff Koons
“Bob Hope” stainless steel sculpture by Jeff Koons
“Split Rocker” 37′ multi-media sculpture by Jeff Koons that is planted yearly with thousands of flowering annuals
“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” gilded porcelain sculpture by Jeff Koons

“Rabbit” mirror-polished and painted stainless steel sculpture by Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons with his “Balloon Dog” sculpture of mirror-polished and painted stainless steel

According to one Washington Post article,

Jeff Koons [is] perhaps America’s most famous contemporary artist and one of its most polarizing. To some, he is a genius who elevates the banal into work powerful enough to alter our imagination and to rekindle childhood wonderment. Others see him as an artist who skillfully caters to an art market where the hyper-rich go to have fun while investing their money.

Whichever category Jeff Koons falls into, whether you appreciate his message or not, he has definitely made his mark. The sale of one of his “Balloon Dog” sculptures, for over 53 million dollars, set a record for the most money paid for a work by any living artist.

Ambition

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For writing inspiration, I’ve turned to a book that I have not yet read: Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by Davis Whyte. It sounded like a book I would thoroughly enjoy. It was recommended by a friend who loves words at least as much as I do. It received excellent reviews.

Elizabeth Gilbert, who did not impress me with Eat, Pray, Love, but who won me over to her engaging writing style with Big Magic, said of Whyte’s book, “Beautiful, elegant, tiny essays on the consoling power of words, written by one of my favorite living poets…” She then suggested, “Keep this book by your bedside forever. I know that I will.” So, I purchased it, and added it to a short stack of similar books that are good for reading before sleep.

Bedside books should not be “page-turners” that will keep me awake and reading to figure out the twists of a heart-pounding plot. They should be thoughtful, but not overly thought-provoking. I try to avoid books, at bedtime, that will keep sleep at bay while I plot revenge, shake in fear, search for solutions, or even just mull things over for hours. What I am reading affects me deeply; I have to be careful. My stack of bedside books often includes art books, memoirs, and poetry.

For several months, now, David Whyte’s book has sat, unread, within the stack. For no reason, other than that my attention was pulled to another book. Last week, I picked it up again, and flipped it open to the table of contents. There, like a gift, was a list of words, in alphabetical order.

I’ve been struggling, lately, for topics to write about. In the nine years that I’ve been regularly writing for this blog, I have published more than eleven hundred essays. I have pulled ideas from books on writing, current events, my family history and my own life. To the point that I can hardly begin to relate a humorous personal anecdote without a hand going up to stop me. “Already know about it,” they’ll explain, “I read your blog!”

I’ve reported on the antics, health and demise of several pets. I have led readers through one household repair, painting project or organizational undertaking after another. I’m sorry (or maybe NOT sorry!) to report that my life is not so exciting as to provide a steady stream of writing material.

So, I was happy to find a whole list of new topics on the Table of Contents page of Whyte’s book. All the better that I have not read his essays. I wouldn’t be intimidated by his brilliance, nor accidentally plagiarize his interpretations. I decided to deliberately avoid reading what he’d written about each word, until I had completed my own writing.

Last week, I started with the first word: Alone. That worked out fine. The next word? Ambition. Ambition has proven to be an unreasonably difficult topic for me. I hear voices, always negative. “…Not showing much ambition,” I hear. And, on the other side of the spectrum, “That’s a little overly ambitious, don’t you think?”

Who spoke to me this way? I have wracked my brain to know. My laziness as a child was well-recognized within my family. I rarely wanted to be involved in household projects, and had to be forced to do my share of regular chores. I had a hundred different ways to get out of work. Still, my father would not use the word “ambition.” “Show a little gumption,” is how he’d put it. My mother would not hesitate to say “lazy.”

As an adult, I’d present elaborate ideas for house plans or home remodels to my husband or others who might be called upon to help. I was often told that my ideas were beyond reach, either because of time or money constraints. Likewise, when I approached professors and mentors with plans for research papers and art projects, I was often encouraged to narrow my scope a little. It’s easy, on paper, to push to extremes, and I often do. Still, I don’t recall being told I was “overly ambitious.”

Clearly, though I don’t know why, this word holds a negative connotation in my mind. I’ve struggled with it all week. I was tempted, but resisted the impulse, to read Whyte’s essay. I consulted the dictionary and the thesaurus. I considered just skipping over the word. Who would know? But, just two words in to my list of topics, that would be a bad precedent to set. I continued to puzzle over it. Ambition. It shouldn’t be so hard!

Yesterday, the election results were called. Like all of the world, I watched the process unfold, and I tuned in last evening to listen to what our newly elected leaders had to say. Within the inspirational, joyful and exuberant speech of Kamala Harris, our history-making, ground-breaking, brand-new vice-president-elect, came this advice: “Dream with Ambition.”

Dream with ambition! I wrote it down immediately! It feels exactly right! From now on, when unknown but persistent voices lead me to believe that ambition is a negative idea, always too little or too much, I’ll replace those thoughts with this concept. It’s always okay to dream big! Dream with ambition!

Timeout for Art: Junk Art

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my precious “Flying Pig” garden sculpture, made for me by my son-in-law, Jeremy Clark

The term. “junk art” was first used by the critic, Lawrence Alloway, in reference to the “Combines” created by Robert Rauschenberg, in which the artist affixed rags, torn reproductions, and other waste materials onto his canvasses. It has come to refer to art that is composed of humble, worthless things. It is often also “anti- aesthetic,” meaning that it doesn’t attempt to meet the traditional standards of fine art.

The concept of junk art goes back to Cubist collage, where actual labels, newspaper and other ordinary materials were adhered to the surface.

Cardboard Guitar by Pablo Picasso

The idea was manifest in the work of Kurt Schwitters, produced after the First World War, much of which was made of rubbish.

Cigar by Kurt Schwitters

In the 1950s and 1960s, junk played a prominent role in Earth Art, Happenings, and the Combine art introduced by Rauschenberg.

Monogram by Robert Rauschenberg

Dewey Blocksma is a Michigan artist that has gained international acclaim from his strong, whimsical images created from simple materials.

The River Guardian (Traverse City, Michigan) by Dewey Blocksma

Though often associated with “Outsider Art” and “Tramp Art,” Junk Art has found a solid place of its own in the art world.

Alone

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I never planned to live all alone on Beaver Island. Honestly, having gone, as was expected, straight from the large family I grew up in right on to my own marriage and children, I hadn’t really ever imagined being alone at all. Other than a few hours here and there, solitude wasn’t anything I’d experienced in life.

When I first moved to this island, it was with my husband and two young daughters. We imagined a rural life that would include gardens and animals, art and handicrafts. I had been inspired, at a young age, by reading The Egg and I, an uproarious account of life on a chicken farm. I’d furthered my education as an adult, with Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, and with E.B. White’s stories about life on a salt-water farm in Maine. As we settled into life on Beaver Island, the Little House on the Prairie books, one chapter, read to my daughters each evening before bed, continued to bolster our confidence.

We also imagined a life full of friends and family. We knew just a few people on Beaver Island: Topper, who had worked for my Dad downstate; Russell, the captain of the ferry boat; Stanley, who always met the ferry, joshed with the adults and teased the children; and Barb, who owned the Shamrock Bar, and had already hired me to be the morning server. We’d make friends, though. We were nice people; we had bright, adorable children. People would like us.

Others would come. Of course my family would still make their annual trip; friends would visit, as well. Having experienced this place only through family vacations, I saw it as charming, quaint and wonderful, and expected that everyone else would, too. In between rounds of company, we looked forward to family time. We planned activities with our daughters, and plotted occasional date nights at the bar, playing backgammon while enjoying a cocktail.

My Dad tried to open my eyes to the day-to-day realities of island living. “It’s not an easy life,” he said, “and it gets damn isolated there in the wintertime.” My Mom was the one that called it, though. “Of all my kids, Cindy could live on Beaver Island,” she predicted, “She has always been the most anti-social of all of my children!”

I believe she meant that in the kindest way possible. In fact, I think “asocial” would have been a more correct description. I have never needed to be around people the way some people seem to. Solitary activities, reading, writing, drawing and handicrafts, have always appealed to me. Growing up in a large, noisy family, I often went to great lengths to find a quiet spot, away from the fray.

That tendency has served me well because, despite the future I’d imagined and plotted out so carefully, my life on Beaver Island has been mostly spent alone. Some things proved true. I’ve made friends. The entire island community feels in many ways like a family. I have three dogs; I keep a vegetable garden; I devote a fair amount of time to making art. These things enrich my life tremendously.

Others things, I didn’t plan for. My marriage ended; my daughters grew up. The months stretch out between family visits. Many local friends have moved away; others have died. Amazingly, this place doesn’t have the broad appeal among other friends that I expected it would.

So, I live by myself, and am often alone. And, just as my mother suspected all those years ago, I do just fine with that!

Timeout for Art: Intaglio

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“In printmaking. intaglio refers to all metal-plate processes, such as “engraving” and “etching,” in which the recessed areas which have been created and then inked are printed from (as opposed to the raised areas of relief printing…).”

Got that? Yeah, I know. Printmaking in all forms is one of the most complicated, confusing and difficult-to-explain of all art processes. There are so many different printmaking techniques! Screen-printing creates images based on a stencil, or a series of stencils. Woodcut, linocut and similar processes print the raised surfaces of the plate, so the areas that are cut away will remain white. It’s necessary, then, to think of the plate like a photographic negative.

Lithography is a process that allows images to be replicated perfectly. A drawing, done originally on a stone or special plate, will print lines, stippling, shading, even erasure marks. It depends on waxy inks and crayons that repel water, and – if this discussion were about the lithographic process – I could attempt to explain it in better detail. Since my topic is intaglio, I’ll just leave it here: lithography is complicated.

There are, of course, many printmaking methods that use non-manual means of duplication, from mass produced copies of paintings to photographs and computer-generated images. They live in a new, gray area: some are considered art, though they are not; some are limited-edition (often signed and numbered) copies of art that are often confused with traditional prints; still others are a brand-new, often misunderstood form of art. Printmakers who work in traditional, time-consuming, hands-on methods often struggle to differentiate their work from machine generated images.

On top of all that, there’s the idea that, in most printmaking processes, the original is not the actual work of art, but only the means to create the artwork. In many instances, including the intaglio process, the image created will be reversed when printed. Today, my goal is to simply make sense of the intaglio process.

Traditionally, an intaglio print is made based on an image created on a metal plate. The simplest engraving process employs tools to carve lines into a copper or zinc plate to create the desired image. Etching is a broader term that includes engraving, but also often refers to lines that are etched into the plate by acid. In that method, the entire plate is covered with a “ground” that the solvent can’t permeate. Lines are drawn through the ground, revealing the surface. The plate is put into an acid solution that etches the exposed areas, creating linear channels in the surface of the plate.

These are the most basic descriptions of the process. There are variations that involve special boxes and air-born grounds to create areas of texture that result in rich, velvet blacks. There are “soft grounds,” that will allow the plate’s surface to pick up delicate patterns of fabric or lace. There are “rockers” that cover the entire plate with texture, that is then painstakingly smoothed out, in areas, to create the desired image. Whether simple or complex, the premise is the same: the textures, cracks and crevices are the areas that hold the ink, and release it onto the paper.

To print, ink is spread over the plate, scraped into all of the textures and crevices, then wiped away from the surface with a series of heavily starched cloths called “tarlatan.” Properly done, and depending on the size of the plate and complexity of the image, this can take an hour or more. The ink remains only in the textures and engraved lines. When dampened paper is placed on the surface, and it is run through the printing press, the paper picks up the ink and results in an image.

To create a second print, the inking, wiping and running-through-the-press process has to be repeated. A good zinc plate can produce a thousand or more identical images…but every single image requires the same inking and wiping process. This hands-on method is certainly far removed from the processes that print hundreds of copies at the press of a button!

Fall, Fox Lake Road

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It starts with a show of white: Queen Anne’s Lace along the side of the road, and the ramp flowers in the woods. Dandelion flowers turn to wishes, and milkweed pods burst open to reveal glowing silky streamers. White birch bark stands out against the dulling greens around them.

Next comes brown. Dark stalks of poppies rise above the dry, withered and paler leaves, all that is left of what was a magnificent bed of flowers in June. Ferns dulled to umber cover large areas between the trees. Tall grasses range from shades of tan to deepest rust.

The bright colors begin showing themselves, stingily at first. One red leaf will drop into the road. A gift, or an omen? A single branch of an entire green tree will turn yellow overnight. Leaves of the beech, growing up as scrub brush from the roots of fallen trees, start showing their russet tones early.

Then, abruptly it seems, the woods have turned golden. This is it! “This is the fall color at its best,” I think, as I snap a dozen photos. The next day, it’s even better. The day after that, even more beautiful.

As some colors deepen, the yellows glow even brighter. A hundred shades of orange and red provide contrast to the golden hues.

Fall winds whistle through the night; cold rains pour down. “That will be it for our fall color,” I think, but the view is only better for the onslaught. The ground is covered, then, with a crackling carpet of autumn shades.

The trees seem even more vibrant, now that light can shine through the remaining leaves. The bark, darkened to nearly black by the wet weather, provides a nice foil for all the varied colors.

This is fall, on the Fox lake Road.