Category Archives: Art

Timeout for Art: Focus

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“Focus is a matter of deciding what things you’re not going to do.”
~John Carmack

I came upon this quote in the book that is currently taking my morning study time: The Power of Creativity by Bryan Collins. In a bit of synchronicity that happens so regularly, it rarely surprises me anymore, I found it just when I needed to hear it.

Focus has always been difficult for me. It’s more common to find me juggling twenty wide-ranging projects, than ever concentrating on just one. The time has come though, at least temporarily, to restrict my activities. I’m about to start printing.

I’ve delayed the process as long as possible. I finished a few new plates and carefully examined all of the others, making sure they are free of flaws, sealed, and ready to go. I tested my inks, to make sure they hadn’t hardened in their tins. I ordered new printing papers so that I’d have enough identical sheets for the entire series. I examined my blotters, brushes and felts to make sure they were all in good condition. I bought a new box of Sumi watercolors, so that my colors will be fresh. Now, it’s time.

So, I have to narrow my focus. I have a small studio. It’s always difficult to have multiple projects going at once. When I’m printing, it’s almost impossible. The printing press, which at other times, felts and blankets protected by a cover, becomes one more horizontal surface to hold other materials, has to remain clear and accessible. The same for the long, low table tucked under the eaves that I use for inking the plates.

The long shelf that runs under the eaves on the other side of the room will now be home to the papers at various stages of use. There will be one large stack of dampened papers, layered between blotter papers and encased in a big plastic bag. Next to that, a large newsprint tablet is ready to protect the fresh prints papers between the pages, while they wait to be painted or printed again.

The drafting table has to give up the clutter of collage materials, adhesives, pencils and papers that usually reside there. It’s designated purpose, for the next several weeks, will be for adding color to the collagraph prints. I’ve already arranged the shelves there, to bring my paints and brushes front and center. The very limited available floor space holds a wooden tote filled with hardboard plates waiting to be printed.

I enjoy the every aspect of the printmaking process; my delaying tactics are not to avoid making prints. What i find difficult is the focus!

A Year After “Aloha”

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Last year, when I started the “April A to Z Challenge,” I was in Hawaii, and my title was “Aloha.” I was, in fact, stranded in Hawaii by shut-downs associated with the – then brand new – Corona Virus. What a year it has been! What a time we have all been through! Today, beginning on this first day of April, I feel that this last year has got to take center stage.

First of all, let me remind you what the April A to Z challenge is. Through this month, I’ll post one blog every day except Sunday, based on the letters of the alphabet. I don’t have a particular theme in mind; maybe one will develop as I move through the letters. For now, it’s just the commitment. During this month, I am setting aside the list of blog topics that I’ve been writing about on Sundays, based on David Whyte’s book, Consolations. I plan to take Sundays off from blogging in April; I’ll pick that up again in May. I’m also changing my “Timeout for Art” blog. I’ve been working my way through the alphabet with that, too, and had just gotten to those difficult few letters at the end…I’m happy for the interruption there! Though art will still turn up as a topic, this month it will have to fall in to whatever letters turn up mid-week..

I should clarify that “stranded in Hawaii” sounds a lot more dire than it actually was. My older daughter and I had travelled together for a visit to my younger daughter and her family. Our one week planned vacation was extended to almost a month. Truly, it was quite wonderful! The weather, of course, was fabulous. We always felt safe. We were comfortable and well taken care of in my daughters house. Until last spring, I hadn’t had more than a couple days at a time with my two daughters together in at least thirty years. So, though there were concerns about our jobs and pets, and our lives were put on hold, I feel blessed to have experienced that special time.

By the time I got home, and finished my mandatory self-quarantine, I had been replaced in my job at the hardware store. That was, without a doubt, challenging in many ways. Still, it offered me several weeks OFF, in the spring and summer, on Beaver Island, for the very first time since I moved here in 1978! My vegetable and flower beds were never so well-tended. My lawn got mowed before it looked like a field. My dogs basked in the attention. And I loved it!

Since last year at this time, I started a new, seasonal job at the Beaver Island Golf Course. I began volunteering at the Island Treasures Resale Shop. I worked out the details for an art show next October. I read at least one book each week. I continued and expanded on a rewarding morning routine. I took care of several long-neglected medical procedures. I found and enjoyed quite a few new recipes. I walked almost every day.

It’s not possible, though, to look back on this year without acknowledging the tremendous devastation caused by Covid-19. How many lives have changed? How many jobs have been lost? How many businesses have closed? How many have died? Everyone knows someone lost to the disease. Everyone has been affected by it. This virus has touched all of us, in the entire world, in one way or another. We are experiencing trepidation and fear, trauma, and grief on a scale never experienced in my lifetime. This year has altered our thinking, and our behavior. I think, as humans, we are forever changed.

That’s the crux of it, I guess. This last year has been defined by the ways that the virus has changed our lives. Everything else seems unimportant in comparison. That makes it all the more necessary, I think, to continue to notice all the little pleasures along the way. As long as I’m here to appreciate them, they still matter!

Timeout for Art: Work

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“Jig” detail

When I use the term “work” when talking about art, it is often a noun. I’ve talked about current work, old work, new work and body of work. Artwork, as a noun, is the product of my efforts. It’s the result of the verb, art work. Lately, it’s the action word I’ve been concentrating on.

The gallery that carries my art here on Beaver Island will be opening soon, for the season. I always like to have new pieces to show. The Museum Week Art Show, in July, is also on my calendar. I have an art show coming up in October, in my home town of Lapeer, Michigan. I plan to have about seventy-five new works for that show. And, it’s already March.

The busy summer season here on Beaver Island is right around the corner. The hardware store business is picking up each week, and will only get busier as the weather gets warmer. In June, I’ll start my job at the golf course, which will fill my summer weekends. Soon, I’ll add gardening and mowing to my household chores. It won’t be long before I have neither time or energy for studio work, so the pressure is on right now.

Last weekend, I spent three long days on studio work. Activities included coating collages, sealing collagraph plates, priming surfaces for new paintings, varnishing finished paintings, and much-needed cleaning. I picked up an order of paper for a collagraph series, and ordered blotter paper and ink for the same series. I measured finished paintings and started to put together a list of frames to order for them. I ordered mats, backer board, plexiglas and frames for thirty collages.

As always happens this time of year, I worry about the amount of money going out, with no guarantee of return on my investment. Also as usually happens, when I’m putting finishing touches on some work, fresh variations and new ideas come to me. I have to constantly remind myself to stick to the program at hand, not go off in a brand new direction. The trouble is, that sounds like play to me, where what I am doing feels so much like…WORK!

Timeout for Art: Varnish

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The landing at the top of the stairs that leads to my studio is a little crowded right now. I’ve been varnishing. That’s a big deal!

Varnish is the final, protective coat applied over a painting. Knowing when to stop working into a piece, recognizing when it is finished, is difficult for many artists, me included.

This particular group of paintings has been “underway” for at least two years. Each has gone through several, sometimes dramatic, transformations. I have displayed them individually in my studio, so that I could ponder what their strengths and weaknesses were, where they needed adjustment, and what that might look like.

I have hidden them away for months at a time. Sometimes that’s in hope that when I see a piece again after a period of time, I’ll have better insight as to how to proceed. Sometimes it’s just one step on the way to the trash bin.

These paintings are done on sturdy, custom-cut sheets of plywood, carefully primed and prepared for paint. That saved them! Even when I was totally discouraged with the imagery, I felt that I could still use the surfaces for experimentation. And I did. These pieces have had collage elements adhered to the surface, and have had those elements variously enhanced and obscured by paint. The surfaces have been painted over, scraped down, sanded and polished.

Not in every case, but a few finally got moved to the “finished” pile. Varnishing makes that decision final.

Timeout for Art: Underway

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Weeks (maybe months?) after photographing some of these collages as “new work,” I am still plugging away at them. Individually, they have each been studied, sometimes close-up to detect flaws in the surface, other times while hung on the wall a few feet away, so I can better judge the composition and the way the colors work together. They have spent some time stacked between sheets of waxed paper under weighted boards to flatten them.

Recently, I spread the collages out on the floor and, using a tiny brush, added a curving trail of purple dots that snaked from one image to another. When that application was dry, I rearranged the pieces on the floor, and used the edge of a piece of cardboard dipped in another color, made a series of thin double lines (=) that linked each image with one of its neighbors. My plan is that these slight elements will, no matter how they are ultimately displayed, serve to reinforce the similarities between all of the images.

The next step, and what I intend to tackle today, is to again examine each collage by itself. I’ll add a bit of shading or color if needed, and make sure all elements on the surface are completely and properly sealed. Last, I’ll finish with a coat of matte varnish. These collages – there are forty in this group – are not yet finished, but they are well underway.

Disappointment

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The more I think about it, the more it seems that disappointment is a pretty common emotion in my household. I’m surprised at how often it comes up!

I was planning to write about a job I recently applied for, and did not get. With help from my sweet daughter, Kate, I updated my resume. I filled out the application form and read through the job description. Then I debated about whether I really wanted the position or not. At the eleventh hour, I turned in the paperwork. An interview was scheduled. I anticipated topics and prepared possible responses. I also wrote out several questions about the job requirements. I had a long conversation via “zoom” with Kate and her family, to make myself comfortable with the on-line meeting format, and to make sure the screen was placed so that I was not looking ghoulish, or like I had a double chin.

The only glitch, on the day of the scheduled meeting, was several inches of fresh snow. While I was waiting for the interview to start, the road truck went down the road, throwing all of my dogs into fits of barking. They had just calmed down when the other participants showed up on screen. I started right out with a warning that, if the young man showed up to plow my driveway, I’d have to interrupt the interview to put at least one dog (Rosa Parks is the instigator) into “time-out.” It’s good that I warned them, because that exact thing happened!

Beyond that, though, the interview went well, in my opinion. I was able to communicate my abilities, voice my concerns, and address their questions confidently. I know all of the other participants, and they were each as friendly, kind and generous as I expected they would be. The next day, I got a call letting me know I did not get the position.

I felt a little twinge of disappointment, sure. It would have been nice to be working at something challenging like that. It would be a chance to use my abilities and education; I’d be learning new skills, increasing my knowledge and stretching my boundaries. The money would be helpful.

If I had gotten the position, though, I’m sure I would have felt an equal amount of disappointment. I’d had so many concerns. Did I really want to take on a third part-time job? The hours to fulfill the requirements of the position would not, I’m sure, include the self-training I’d need to update my computer skills. Would I be a failure? Was I trying to do too much? When would I find time to make art? To walk the dogs?

So, that’s one example, in my life, of “Disappointment-No-Matter-What.” It’s a fairly regular occurrence. I walked, penguin-like, to the end of my icy driveway yesterday, only to find the entire length of Fox Lake Road to be equally as icy. Too slippery to take a long walk. That’s a disappointment. The day before, the road to the north was nearly clear, and the dogs and I went for a good long walk…which eliminated time to get in the studio before dinner. That was disappointing.

It’s kind of a trade-off. I’m always a tiny bit disappointed when I finish a good book, but I’m excited, in equal measure, to begin a new one. Every page that I turn in my journal gives me a wisp of disappointment at the lack of accomplishment and the too-swift passage of time. Yet every new page is a fresh start, with new promise and possibility. Disappointment at not being able to travel means, at the same time, no guilt and turmoil over leaving the dogs at the kennel. Disappointment over not being able to eat out is accompanied by the comfortable pleasure of enjoying my own cooking at home, with book in hand, and three dogs waiting for leftovers.

Disappointments are just little bumps along the road that remind me to take notice. They aren’t devastating; they don’t lead to despair. They are part of the juggling act in my life, where there are many good things that cannot all be acted upon at once. That kind of disappointment, I can live with!

Timeout for Art: Time

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Time. In the context of art, time is invaluable.

It’s not only the time needed to execute a piece of art, though that cannot be diminished. Some aspects simply cannot be rushed. Things need to set up, or dry, before the next step. Some things just take a long time. I have collagraph plates that take more than two hours to ink and wipe, and that is just one small aspect of the printmaking process. Papers have to be dampened and wrapped about twenty-four hour before they’re used for printing. If they sit too long, depending on the conditions, they will either dry out, or mold. No matter the process or medium, things have to progress in some order.

Often, the beginning is the hardest part: sifting through ideas, letting them percolate, gathering materials, gaining momentum. It’s easy to say (it must be, because it’s repeated so often), “if you only have ten minutes for your art, just give it ten minutes,” but that ignores all of the factors that come before actual art-making. I could take ten minutes just to change out of street clothes and into the paint-spattered, medium-crusted, raggedy sweats that are reserved for the studio. I guarantee that clean-up when I’m finished will take longer than that!

People, those who don’t understand how creative work differs from many other tasks, will often ask, “How many hours would something like that take?” One friend, a quilt maker, deemed a question like that reason to end the conversation and show them the door. Others have cute answers that include all of their years of practice, education and experience. It is the question itself that is flawed; there is no right answer. Sometimes the layout goes smoothly for a drawing or painting, and the undertaking slows after that. In other circumstances, the reverse is true. I’ve spent hours, weeks, months of struggle to bring a piece of art to satisfactory conclusion. Other times, like magic, everything falls together easily, and the results shine. Time means nothing, and at the same time, it means everything.

Timeout for Art: Sketching

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Sketching has become a regular and significant part of my life. I draw every morning, at my dining room table. I draw when I’m sitting in a waiting room. I draw when I’m on the telephone, or watching a movie, or sitting on the bank at Fox Lake while the dogs have a swim, or when I’m trying to work through an idea. No drawing takes more than a few minutes of my time, but the benefits stretch on.

The sketchbook I use is fairly mundane. The paper is of reasonable quality, but not overly precious. It has a hard cover, which is helpful if I’m away from a desk or table, and is bound together with a thick wire spiral, making it easy to open flat. I keep a dark sepia-toned extra fine point artist pen in the sketchbook’s spiral binding. Always ready. The pen limits my methods of shading, and eliminates the possibility of erasing. My sketchbook is marked off into variously-sized small squares, rectangles and – occasionally – a triangle. So, I don’t even have to commit to a full-page drawing. This is the least intimidating method I could think of to start and maintain a drawing habit, and it worked. I draw every day.

This is not fine art. Some sketches work much better than others; the images on some pages relate with each other better than on others. This work is not meant to be framed, or even shown. Though I sometimes work on shading techniques, composition, or, for instance, how best to illustrate glass in black and white, it’s not about art.

Making these little observational sketches feels more like meditation than art work. It is simply looking closely, and recording what I see. It has caused me to be a better observer; it constantly reminds me to be honest to my vision. At the same time, the practice of doing it, of taking time to observe and render what I see, reinforces the idea that I am an artist. Sketching is a small and simple practice, but it has become an important part of my life.

Timeout for Art: Reading

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Reading, you might say, has very little to do with art. Art is “making.” Art is “creating.” Art is “showing up and doing it.” Yes, true. But for me, reading is a huge contributor to my art. Books offer reference, reminders, instruction and inspiration. They serve as a gateway into the studio when I’ve been away from it too long. They introduce me to new techniques, or remind me of others that I haven’t used in a while. Books offer fresh viewpoints and expand my vision beyond the walls of my own small studio. I find them invaluable.

Some of my favorites:

For a push to get going:

  • Making Room for Making Art by Sally Warner
  • The classic The Artist’s Way, of course, but any books by Julia Cameron outline and reinforce her solid principles
  • The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
  • Any of the several books on creativity and “flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

For inspiration:

  • Lucy Lippard has several good books detailing various art movements. I find them accessible and always eye-opening. Overlay, Mixed Blessings, Eva Hesse, and From the Center are ones that I refer to again and again
  • No More Secondhand Art by Peter London
  • Deep Play by Diane Ackerman
  • The Reenchantment of Art by Suzi Gablik
  • This Way Day Break Comes: Women’s Values and the Future By Anne Cheatham and Mary Clare Powell
  • Clear Seeing Place by Brian Rutenberg is currently providing me with a new desire to get things going in the studio. He also has several wonderful short videos on YouTube

Books on process and technique can serve as inspiration as well. I have many, but most often turn to these:

  • If I’m planning an art class, I first turn to Learning By Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit by Corita Kent and Jan Steward
  • For papermaking, or to explain papermaking, I go to the book that I first learned the process from: The Complete Book of Handcrafted Paper by Marna Elyea Kern
  • For drawing, I turn to Drawing: A Contemporary Approach by Claudia Betti and Teel Sale
  • Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards is also helpful
  • Finding One’s Way With Clay by Paulus Berensohn has influenced my thoughts on how I approach clay, and all other media

Beyond these standard go-to books, I have others dealing with specific artists, art movements and art history, as well as instructional books for specific painting and printmaking techniques. For me, reading makes an important contribution to my art-making.

Timeout for Art: Quitting

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It may surprise anyone who knows what a big part of my life art is, and always has been, that I often think about quitting. Not only do I think about it, I do it. I close the drapes that hang at the bottom of the stairs, keeping the heat down in my living spaces. Sometimes they stay that way for days. I give my attention to my outside job, and to other things that interest me. I think about issues of health and fitness; I read; I spend extra time with the dogs; I write. Now and then, I make popcorn, and over-indulge in Netflix offerings.

I think about what life would be like if I gave up on art. What would I be, if I were not an artist? I’d still be a mother, grandmother, sister and friend. I’d still be a walker, a reader, a writer, a gardener, a baker, a cook, a good worker and an exceptional employee. I might come home from work without even thinking about how to fit studio time into my evening, around other duties and obligations. Maybe I’d keep a tidier house. And finish the dozens of household projects that wait for me.

Art fills my life. It takes up every spare bit of time, and mental and physical space. It rarely shows a profit; art supplies are expensive. The matting and framing necessary for display further adds to the cost. The business end of being an artist is not something I like, and I’m not good at it. So, my art career creeps along slowly and steadily. It will never make me rich; it will never make me famous.

Possibly, if I quit, I’d finally reupholster the green vinyl and duct tape footstool (ugly, yes, but attached to so many memories) that came to me from the old family farmhouse. Maybe I’d spend my evenings just sitting in the armchair, my feet propped up on the footstool, a little dog beside me, a book open in my lap. I could entertain again, invite friends over, play games. Maybe I could clear out the studio, and turn it into a guest room. Then, I’d have space as well as time for company. What a life!

the landing at the top of the stairs

Eventually, though, I pull open the curtains, loop them up to either side, and let the heat go up to the small rooms above. Before long, I climb the stairs. I wander in to the studio. First, just to look around, then to organize a little bit, maybe to sit and spend some time. Finally, I start shuffling collage materials around, playing with colors and shapes. I pull out papers, and paints and trays of other materials. And then I’m committed: dipping in to polymers with my bare hands, pulling out colors, dropping one brush after another into the jar of mud-colored water.

When I finally emerge, it will take a half hour just to get my hands clean. The dogs will let me know they resent the lack of attention. I may be late in starting dinner, or in cleaning up the kitchen. I might have to rush right out the door, in order to get a walk in before dark. It might be so late, it will be impossible get a full night’s sleep. No matter. I’ll be feeling energized, satisfied and fulfilled. Because, you see, art fills my life.

“A journalist once asked me, “With the onslaught of bad news and endless needs — how do you not quit?” I said: “Oh, I do quit! Quitting is my favorite. Every day I quit. Every single day.” I wake up and I care the most amount. And then — at some point — I put it all away and melt into my people and my couch and food and nothingness. And I care not at all. I forget it all. Then I go to sleep and wake up and begin again. Begin and quit every day! Only way to survive. Embrace quitting as a spiritual practice, loves.” ~G. Doyle

my studio door