Category Archives: Art

Timeout for Art: Edges

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Touch Point

Throughout the history of art, the way that the edges of two dimensional works are treated has varied wildly.

Often, edges are used to further the illusion of realistic painting. The scene depicted runs right up to the borders, as if the frame is enclosing a window rather than a canvas. As if the view is real, not simply a painting.

Early Christian painting held a different attitude. Images were centered within the surface, similar to low-relief carvings, which they were modelled after.

In my own abstract work, I like to be aware of the parameters. Sometimes I use pattern and color to draw the eye to the edge, then back in, to the center. Other times, I place an object in the center, and frame it in. Sometimes the border is negated by lines zipping off the surface, as if the image continues off the picture plane; other times the border is emphasized. In every case, the treatment of edges is important to the overall feeling.

Open Loops

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“Each man should frame life

so that at some future hour fact and his dreaming meet.”

~ Victor Hugo

In my on-going, continual effort to (1) organize my life, time, space and daily activities and (2) make actual change to foster personal and creative growth, I came upon the “Open Loops” concept.

According to the book, Getting Things Done by David Allen, “open loops” are any tasks, projects and commitments you’ve started and not finished. “Started” can even mean “had a random thought about doing.” Open loops are not regular tasks that you do automatically. They are not “favorite things.” They are not chores.

Open loops are things that you’ve invited into your brain by starting them, or by acknowledging that you want to start them, or that you should start them. They are physical things, these thoughts and ideas that represent a task or project to be completed. They take up space.

Our brains can only hold so much information in active memory. If you’re holding everything you want or need to do in active memory, you are inviting anxiety. You’ll feel overwhelmed at the number of tasks vying for your attention, and anxious that you’ll forget something.

Open loops foster procrastination, by constantly presenting several optional activities to any job-at-hand. They all feel pressing. They are like promises to yourself. Promises feel urgent, so they end up taking precedence over dreams. No matter how insignificant the open loops. No matter how important the dreams.

Allen’s advice for dealing with open loops? Write them down! Listing all of the onerous little “to-do”s will prevent them from sabotaging legitimate efforts toward progress. Once they are on paper, they no longer need to play constantly at the edges of your thoughts. No need to worry that they’ll be overlooked or forgotten. They have a place.

Now that they are all written down, it becomes obvious that some are trivial, and that others are truly important. Amazing, that they all seemed to carry equal weight when pulling at your attention! You can rank them, now, in order of urgency or significance. There may be some that can simply be crossed off the list. Some can be easily knocked-off by a letter or a phone call. Others will need to be planned for, and scheduled in. On paper, dealing with open loops becomes a real but not insurmountable goal.

My own list, which easily covered two full journal pages, included “thank-you”s and other letters owed, subscriptions to cancel, and phone calls to make. It also had several big projects (move the snowball bush; re-hang the bookshelves), and a few dreaded activities (last year’s taxes, for one). I was able to check many items off in the first week. Others, I continue to plug away at.

Unfortunately, I continue to come across new or forgotten items to add to my list. I may never have a blank page! Still, I find it is helpful to have all of my open loops down on paper, rather than playing constantly around the edges of my mind.

Timeout for Art: Daily Drawing

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One of the accomplishments I am proudest of this year is starting and maintaining the habit of drawing every day.

Drawing is not a skill anyone is born with. Some people seem to have more of a knack for it, however, fostering the false belief that you’re either born with the ability, or you’re not. Untrue!

Drawing is a motor skill that involves coordinating the eyes and the hand. Like juggling. Or driving. And, like any motor skill, it must be learned, and maintained. With practice, ability will improve; without it, the skill will decline.

I’ve watched my drawing skills slide, over years of neglect. I’ve felt the struggle to get the shadows, or a line down correctly, when I wanted to capture an image. What once was easy for me, became difficult for lack of practice. Over the years, I gathered quite a collection of nearly-empty sketchbooks, and a good stack of ambitious but unfinished drawings.

This year, I decided that was going to change. I added drawing to my list of early morning self-improvement activities, along with meditation, gratitude practice, journal-writing, yoga and studying. Because I have a long list, and morning time is limited, nothing gets more than a half-hour.

I find the sketchbook page is much less intimidating if there are borders. Often, I break a page up into small rectangles, but even pages reserved for one larger drawing are framed in. I use a fine-point, sepia-tone marker. That eliminates the possibility of erasing, and forces me to make – and stick with – decisions regarding placement and subject matter.

I capture mundane objects…

…and sleeping dogs.

When my sisters and I went to Florida in February, I packed my sketchbook right along with my journal, camera, and bathing suit.

When I was in Hawaii this spring, there was always something delightful and challenging to focus on, from unusual plants to coral and rock samples, and it was one more way to document a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

When I got home, it was a great way to pass time in quarantine.

Now, finally, daily drawing has become a regular and valued part of my day.

Timeout for Art: Collagraph

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Collagraphy is a printmaking process that has always held my interest. It begins with a collage (and I do so love collage) that becomes the printmaking plate.

The plate can be inked like an etching, where the cracks and textures hold the ink, and release it onto the dampened paper when rolled through the printing press. It can also be inked like a relief print, wood-cut or lino-cut, for example. Then, ink is rolled onto the raised areas of the plate. I combine these two methods, as well as hand coloring areas between runs though the press.

It’s a process that has many steps to completion. Making the plate is a project by itself, requiring preparing the ground, making the collage and sealing the image. Papers have to be dampened, then layered between sheets of blotter paper, and wrapped in plastic at least a day before printing.

Inking the plate for one run through the press can take an hour or more. For the first pass, I usually choose a medium brown-black. I mix the color from tubs of ink, adding a drop or two of plate oil to make it more malleable. The thick, tar-like ink is spread over the entire plate, rubbed in so that it reaches into all the lines and textures, then wiped off with tartalan, a heavily starched cheesecloth fabric. The edges of the plate have to be wiped clean, so not to outline the image.

Finally, the press. A sheet of newsprint protects the press bed from any wayward smudges of ink. The inked and wiped plate is placed face-up on top of it. A sheet of damp printmaking paper is centered over the plate. Another sheet of newsprint goes down on top of that. It is then covered be several layers of felt blankets, the same size as the press bed.

There is a four-spoked wheel on the side of the press, that I use to crank the press bed from one side to the other, through the heavy rubber rollers. Then, one by one I pull the felts up, folding them back over the rollers. I pick up the top sheet of newsprint and toss it to the side. Finally, I carefully lift the paper away from the printmaking plate!

That’s just the beginning. Sometimes, I have to adjust the plate to lighten an area, or give an area more texture so that it will hold more ink to make a darker tone. Then, it has to be sealed once more, before it can be printed again. If the image is satisfactory, it is placed between layers of newsprint, weighted down with a piece of plywood, and left to dry. Hand coloring is next, which I do with watercolors, watercolor pencils, and gouache.

Finally, it will be inked and run through the press again, this time with a rich blue-black, to redefine the edges and make the colors pop. There are things that can go wrong through every step along the way. I’ve experienced most of them. When things go right, though, and a print comes off the press with colors blazing, and ink like velvet running lines of character and definition through the image…it’s just like Christmas morning!

Timeout for Art: Bookshelf

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How long has it been since I’ve written a “timeout for art?” A month? Maybe two? See, I want to pause now, in what I’m doing, and look up that information. Then, once I had the facts, I’d have to rewrite what I just wrote, taking away any question. I’m going to try not to do that. It has been a while, let’s go with that.

I know that in the last timeout for art, I laid out plans to work my way through the alphabet. A was for Abstract, and I did a little blog about that. And then I got sidetracked. I had made a list: one art topic for every letter of the alphabet. Most of them related directly to my art, or some art practice that I know something about. When I got stuck at the more difficult letters, I consulted a little dictionary of art terms. X and Z were a bit of a stretch, if I remember correctly, but I had them all, A to Z.

I wrote the list down in the beautiful notebook with soft pages and rose-colored suede cover that my sister, Robin, gave me. For the last several weeks, I have not been able to find that notebook. Recreating the list has not been possible, because I not only cannot remember almost anything that was on it, I also cannot find the little dictionary of art terms. I have a feeling that both the notebook and the dictionary are buried somewhere in the massive stack of books in the corner of my living room.

Yes, I still have a mound of books stacked in the corner. Still! A month after the collapse of my bookshelves! Over the course of the last month, I have bought longer screws for the shelf supports. I purchased a new battery operated screw driver when the one I owned would no longer take a charge. With step stool, line level and all the patience I could muster, I managed to get one vertical support in place. That’s one of five.

In my defense, I am now working six days a week. Plus trying to coordinate times to record my radio show. I’ve been doing quite a bit of Emailing back and forth to finalize plans for an art show next year. And it’s summer. The dogs need their walks; the garden needs attention; the blackberries are ripening. Tonight, as I write this, I have a big kettle full of tomatoes simmering on the stove, and I’m so tired, I can barely keep my eyes open.

I wanted to write, though, about a book I just finished, that gives me hope. Perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern in the last few paragraphs. I am easily distracted from any task at hand. I give almost everything equal attention, whether it is a big, possibly life-changing event, or a minute detail. I have a dozen or more balls in the air at once. This combination results in constant frustration at myself. I seem to be always behind, and always neglecting the most important things.

It turns out, I am not alone! Jessica Abel is a writer, cartoonist, teacher, and graphic artist. She is also a blogger, pod-caster and workshop organizer. Oh, and a wife, and a mother of young children. And she just recently moved back to the United States from France. And wrote a book!

The book is Growing Gills: How to find creative focus when you’re drowning in daily life. It breaks down all the tendencies that get in the way of forward movement, then step-by-step forges a pathway through the chaos. It makes so much sense! For instance, she writes:

“Every choice you make, every time you prioritize one thing over another, there are corresponding sacrifices you make. Sometimes the trade-offs are financial, emotional or relational. Whether you are willing to address these trade-off or not is beside the point. They exist.”

She goes on to say that the real problem comes when you don’t decide, and let whatever happens, happen. She advocates choosing one creative endeavor at a time to actively work on. “Too many projects = no projects.”

The book includes lots of worksheets and tasks to help identify, sort, weed out, and/or bring to satisfactory conclusion every single item on the “Idea Debt” list. I read this book over the course of the last six weeks. I didn’t do all of the worksheets; I did take copious notes. Instead of immediately starting another book, as I usually do, I’m reviewing the notes and other materials.

I’ve never been very good at book reviews. I do a lot of gushing over books I like, and complain about the ones that disappoint me, but I’m not good at articulating the reasons why. I loved this book! I found it to be helpful…maybe life-changing-ly so. If your life seems chaotic and you feel like creative pursuits are falling by the wayside, you might find it helpful, too.

Pause

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Today is my day off. Oh, precious, wildly anticipated day! I look forward to it intensely for each of the six days leading up to it. I count down the days until my day off…can hardly wait for my day off…want my day off to hurry up and get here…until I have to chastise myself for wishing my life away.

I had a good portion of this summer off. I took to that lifestyle as if I were born for it! Long, lazy summer days stretched ahead of me…until suddenly they didn’t. Work took the place of leisure. Stress filled in for calm. And every day I look ahead to the one day when I don’t have to go to a job.

I have such momentous, big plans for the things I will accomplish on this one measly day that I must believe myself to be superhuman. Me, who can barely find the energy to make a meal and clean up after it on any given workday! I imagine my day off to stretch on and on…yet here it is more than halfway over with. Already.

I’ve gotten some things done, sure. My morning routine includes writing, drawing and studying while drinking several cups of coffee. I also fit in a little meditation, some yoga, and the morning news. These things are standard whether I’m working or not. Today, I had an appointment, so planned a trip to the Transfer Station and to the Post Office, as long as I was going to town. Trash and recyclables had to be loaded into the car, letters written, payments made, and everything sealed and stamped for the mail.

Home, the dogs and I took a long walk. I wandered through the garden, then (one cucumber, two tomatoes) and through the berry patch (about one cup of ripe blackberries). I carried my paper trash out to the fire pit and burned it. I warmed leftovers for my lunch. I checked the long string of messages on my phone’s answering system, and jotted down numbers to return calls.

And that brings me to this moment, sitting here at the computer, with the day half-gone, and a whole long list of things classified as ought-to-do, want- to-do and have-to-do. And as I sit here, I think, “I’ve worked hard all week. I deserve a break!” Ah, yes, let’s concentrate on the pause!

Can I Ever Catch Up?

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Two weeks ago, I was on top of things. At least that’s how it seems, looking back from my present situation, which is polar opposite of “on top of things.” Today, it seems like I’m on the bottom of a very large pile of things, scrambling to get my footing. What happened?

It was just about two weeks ago when my sisters started arriving for their week-long Beaver Island vacation. I’d had a good summer up to that point, both relaxing and productive. My garden was doing well, the house was in order, and work was progressing nicely in the studio. I was working a few days a week, but was looking forward to more time than usual with my family.

Cheryl arrived on Saturday. I stopped at the family farmhouse after work to say hello. We made plans to meet later for dinner and a trip to the cemetery to plant flowers, and I went home to take care of my dogs. They met me at the kitchen door. I gave them a good greeting, and we went for a long walk. I wandered through the garden to pull a few weeds and pick what was ripe. Inside, I packaged up my contribution to dinner, and started to fill the dog’s dishes for their evening meal.

It was only then that I glanced into the front room. What in the world?!

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My bookshelves had given way, spilling their contents all over the room. My little television was dangling by its electrical cord. The stereo was face down on the floor. Books were strewn over every surface. Baskets, once filled with yarn, cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs and assorted on-going projects, had been relieved of their contents, too. I was thankful that the dogs, often sleeping right in the path of all of the destruction, had not been hurt. I assessed the damage, made a few necessary adjustments, fed the dogs, and went out the door to keep my plans.

So, it was several hours later when I sifted through the mess to make some sense of it, and cleared enough of a path through the room to make it usable. Cheryl had offered several times to come and help me, but I declined. The room is small, and the mess was huge. Even alone, I often had difficulty finding a place to step; there was no room for a second person.

Books had to be picked from the shelves before the shelves could be moved. Sometimes, removing the books caused a shelf to slide away in an unexpected direction. It was a long, tedious process. By the time I went to bed, I had a huge pile of books in a corner, and a stack of shelves against one wall. The supports were in a mound on the dining room floor, and the TV was on the table. And, my back was out.

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And, two weeks later, that’s exactly where everything still is. Because, the next day, I worked eight hours. And my back was still causing problems. And, three more sisters arrived, along with husbands, friends and one niece. My brother-in-law, Keith, brought up my shelves more than once; if I’d asked, I’m sure he would have helped me tackle the project. I didn’t ask. One week is a short time to visit with loved ones that I see only a few times in an entire year. That was my priority.

Meals together; game nights; beach time; catching up on family happenings, mutual acquaintances, general news and health updates after months apart: that was most important to me. That’s how my time was best spent, and I don’t regret it a bit. I took time away from work last Sunday to – sadly – see the last of my family off on the ferry boat.

Monday, I went back to work at the hardware store, after a four-month hiatus. Many of the summer workers my boss had hired are going back to college, so my job was available again. Continuing to honor commitments I took on in the meantime, I am now suddenly working six days a week. And, boy, am I out of practice! This is exhausting! In addition, over the course of the last two weeks, weeds have taken over my garden and the grass needs to be mowed.

Today is my only day off. The electric screwdriver is on the charger; if it charges, I’ll be able to tackle the bookshelves. I bought gas for the lawnmower. Bed linens are in the washer; I plan to hang them on the line to dry. I’m going to take all the rugs outside to shake them, and sweep through the house. I intend to make some salads to carry for my lunches this week. Big plans…if I ever find the energy to get out of this chair!

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a sunset shared with my sisters

Happily Behind

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sisters sunset

The grass in my front yard is longer than it’s been all summer. Weeds are gaining the advantage in the garden. More than a week ago, the bookshelves in my living room collapsed. Since then, I’ve had a small television set on the dining room table, baskets of yarn and embroidery floss tucked onto other surfaces wherever they’d fit, and a huge mound of books stacked in front of the front door. The shelves are stacked against one wall; the supports against another. I haven’t stepped foot in the studio in a week. I’ve missed at least three blogging days.

Normally, situations like this drive me crazy. Disorganized procrastinator that I am, I often find myself behind. Usually, I hate it. I berate myself for my laziness and neglect; I rant and rail about all the obligations that keep me from my tasks. I feel anxious and frustrated. Not this time!

My sisters came to the island last week! It was a welcome and long overdue chance to catch up. I spent the whole week enjoying their good company and smiling faces. I relished every conversation, loved every shared experience, and basked in the feelings of comfort and joy that come from  sharing time with people I love. I’m behind, yes, but happily so. It was absolutely worth it!

Timeout for Art: Abstract

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Sanctuary

Here I am, just one day after posting a conversational blog (that should have been published on Sunday), with another. And this, my “Timeout for Art” blog, which I planned to post every Wednesday, has been pretty hit-and-miss over the last few weeks.

Here’s the thing. After weeks of Corona-virus induced stay-at-home time, I find myself back out in the work force. And it’s exhausting!! Not that any of it is too hard or so demanding, but just that I’m not used to it.

I work one or two days a week at our Island Treasures Resale Shop. It’s a worthy cause, providing support for our island Fire Department and EMS. All merchandise is donated; all staff is volunteer. Everyone that I work with is helpful and kind. No job is difficult, and there are many hands available when assistance is needed. The shifts are only four hours long.

I work two days a week at the Beaver Island Golf Course. My duties are few: I sanitize carts and equipment between customers, and accept fees for golfing and cart rental. I drive a golf cart around the course to check for any problems. If the weather is good, and the office isn’t busy, I can cross the road and work in the garden. Pleasant activities for lovely people.

Compared to my work at the hardware, where I would regularly:

  • run five miles or more on freight days, just in repeated trips from the back to the front of the building, often with heavy loads
  • carry 50 pound bags of bird seed, potting soil or water softener salt out to the customer’s cars
  • haul 12′ ladders through the store to retrieve products or set up displays
  • make dozens of trips each day up and down the basement stairs to stock products on shelves

This, in addition to helping customers find what they need, managing telephone calls, cash register and veterinary appointments, cleaning, mixing paint, cutting and threading pipe, cutting keys…the list goes on. That was a hard job. That was a job that warranted the exhaustion I felt at the end of a day.

That’s why I am baffled at the way these relatively simple jobs wear me out. Other than that I may have gotten too accustomed to the lackadaisical, easy-going lifestyle of the unemployed, I don’t understand it. But, that’s the way it is.

I was so tired Sunday evening, after four days of having to (dread!) leave my house, I couldn’t possibly write. Monday, I felt it was necessary to just sit around, one dog or another on my lap, to recuperate. Yesterday, I finally managed to write and post a blog, mainly as a means of procrastinating on another obligation (which tendency, I swear, deserves a blog all to itself!).

Today, with that “other obligation” still looming, I decided (surprise, surprise!) that it was of ultimate importance to get my Wednesday post out on time. So, here I am. I’ve been struggling with finding enough to say about art, so I’m going to work my way through the alphabet, starting today, with Abstract for the letter A.

I was thinking I’d have some trouble when I got to those hard letters at the end of the alphabet. As it turns out, the trouble is already here. I was planning to write about my reasons for working mainly in the abstract. It’s something I’ve talked and written about before, and a topic I’ve thought quite a bit about. Simple.

Then, I came across a wonderful essay by an artist I admire, that tossed all my rote thinking out the door. Brian Rutenberg, a prolific New York artist, has a series called “Studio Visits” that I’ve been watching on YouTube. I’m also reading his latest book, Clear Seeing Place. He says, “abstraction is a process, not a style.”

Aren’t even the most realistic paintings abstract, in that they are two-dimensional renderings of three-dimensional objects? Rutenberg makes me believe it with his description of Van Gogh’s ropey brushstrokes. So often, the brushwork or pencil lines are an integral part of art work, though they have nothing to do with the object or scene being depicted, and everything to do with the act of recreating it. According to Brian Rutenberg, “saying you’re painting abstracts is like saying you’re eating cooking: it doesn’t mean anything.”

He’s given me a lot to think about, and rendered my planned essay unusable. So, there.

 

 

 

Monday, Monday…

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We are awfully close to halfway through summer. In some ways, it seems to be flying by. In others, this has been the summer of my dreams, and distant memories. I’ve probably already mentioned that I haven’t had a summer off, on Beaver Island, since I first moved here in 1978, until now. I always worked hard, too: busy days; long hours. Summers are the busiest season here.

This year, though, Covid-19 has wreaked havoc everywhere. Though this island remains, at this time, free of the virus, we still have all the usual misgivings about how to stay safe. We need the business, but it’s scary to think of crowds of people coming here from areas where the virus is prevalent. Fortunately or not, many usual summer visitors have not come. The Corona Virus has taken a big bite out of our tourist industry, and left me temporarily out of work.

I watch with sadness and horror as other communities deal with overwhelming sickness and death. I’m very aware that my age puts in in a “high risk” group. There is still some trepidation whenever I have to be in public. I cancelled a planned trip to attend my grandson’s high school graduation party downstate, due to fears about being exposed. And I’m still second guessing myself over that decision. I don’t want to be ruled by fear, but I absolutely want to be safe.

Beyond all that, though, I’m having a wonderful time! I am kind of a loner, and definitely an introvert. I have house, garden and studio to keep me busy, dogs to keep me entertained, and a regular routine to provide some structure to my days. I have a little one-day-a-week volunteer position, and a new part-time job on the week-ends. I get a little Social Security check each month, and a little unemployment to supplement that. This is a lovely summer!

Mondays, though! When I worked at the hardware store, and before that when I worked at the Shamrock Restaurant and Pub, I almost always worked Saturday and Sunday. My “week-end” is Monday and Tuesday. So, even now when I mostly don’t work, I wake up on Monday with a sense of urgency, a feeling of near panic, at all the things I need to do. Today was no different.

I got up early and got going right away. First my morning routine: meditate; write; draw; yoga.  Then I spent about an hour studying. I am working my way through an embarrassingly large collection of self-help books, with topics ranging from art techniques to exercise to how to stop procrastinating or become a better listener, writer, cook or general human being. If nothing else comes of this time off, I will have at the very least made every effort to better myself!

I took a shower and dressed, then took the dogs on their first walk of the day. Garden, next, to water and weed. Then on to one of the flower beds It’s hot out there, though! Especially in that flower bed, against the south wall of my house. There was no breeze, and the heat was magnified by the white siding. When I was driven inside, I’d start a load of wash, dust a surface, or sweep something. Then back at it. When I cleaned up for lunch, I made a pot of chicken soup. Always, with the idea that I’d better keep busy. No time to waste. Lots of things to get done.

As I was working at filling the wheelbarrow with crab grass and bladder wort that has taken over among the day lilies, my mind was racing ahead to the next thing to do. The rugs need to be shaken out and washed. I have two paintings underway in the studio. Windows show patterns of dog nose and dog paw. Before long, the yard will need to be mowed again.

After my third long bout of weeding, while wiping the sweat from my brow, it occurred to me: what I don’t get done today, I can do tomorrow. Or the next day,Or the day after that! I broke into a big grin. I love this summer! Mondays do not have to be filled to the brim with urgent tasks. Mondays can be just another normal day. As long as I remember!