December 14, 2017

Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Gene: An Intimate History and an Image in Miniature

This week I finished two projects. One was an epic journey through The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The other project was the completion of a miniature portrait commission. Mukherjee’s The Gene, was my official "waiting room" literature. These are books that I read while waiting in doctors’ offices - and there have been plenty this year. It took about five months of waiting rooms and time between other obligations to finish this amazing book. It was worth every minute of the literary journey. I call this a literary journey because this work of both science and art is resplendent with literary allusions interspersed with biography, and all spun together in an epic tale of social, scientific and ethical history. In short, it is a masterpiece.

I read this book initially as a refresher for my own study in genetics and also to come to terms with hereditary illness. I was surprised to find that in writing the book, the author was also coming to terms with his own family history of a devastating hereditary mental illness - hence the sub text of an intimate history. And yet, despite the obligatory discussion of these and other sobering realities, Siddhartha Mukherjee manages to maintain a sense of humor in much of the telling. As one who devotes an inordinate amount of time to thinking up irreverent puns, jokes and rhymes, I could not help but admire the liberal sprinkling of such chortle inducing literary devices throughout this book. One fine example was the description of the abbot who oversaw Mendel’s experiments. The abbot’s prudishness would not tolerate observations involving the coerced breeding of mice, but "didn’t mind giving peas a chance."

My other project, although a small commission, carried its own specialness as it was my first commission in a long time, the first commission from a new client, and apparently the first commission of art work for this new client. The painting was a miniature portrait of his mother circa 1955. I am not certain if confluences find their way to me or I to them, but there were certainly moments of synchronicity between reading The Gene: An Intimate History, and painting this charming little portrait. I was told, for instance, that the subject of my portrait had eighteen siblings. That is most assuredly a copious gene pool. Yet there was also a subtle, more intimate reckoning that coincided with making this painting and something I read in Mukherjee’s text. In one of the last chapters there was a study of twins reared separately in order to determine whether or not behavior had mostly social/environmental influence or genetic ones and how the two might interact. One question submitted to the twins in the study caught my eye: "Do you have original art in your home?" It may be arbitrary but the question was supposed to indicate a higher educational/social standing. What interested the researchers was that there was a very high social and behavioral correlation in twins reared apart, even if their social and economic backgrounds were different. So I suppose that twins reared apart might both have original art in their homes regardless of whether their adoptive parents or friends told them to have that or not. But what interested in me was why the researchers used that question as a benchmark as a social class indicator.

So I had to mull that question over a bit, just as my client considered the commission for a while before acting upon it. Historically, people who commissioned art were powerful figures: the popes, the Medicis, aristocrats. And commissioning a likeness - of oneself or another, held a special place in such investments. For most of us, we can trace our visual lineage only as far back as nineteenth century photography allows. (I recall feeling a twinge of jealousy when a friend with an aristocratic background showed me photographs of her ancestors going back to the nineteenth century and then revealed the eighteenth and seventeenth century miniature paintings that extended before ) Perhaps even more importantly, we can only extend our visage posterity to that end point at which photographs deteriorate - two hundred years tops when archival inks and papers are used, only decades if not. But paintings like this tiny oil on panel are made with earth and minerals and as such are written in stone. So perhaps commissioning a likeness means more than just having an art work in the home. Perhaps it means a claim to a bit of the power of the Medicis - power to stake one’s place in things that outlive the ordinary.

December 4, 2017

More Revisions in Paintings

Finished the fifth painting restoration. This takes care of all the paintings that were recent returns. The older returns will have to wait until I finish a small commission. This landscape took a while because it required resurfacing entirely. But I think that it was well worth the effort. As mentioned in my earlier post, the painting had problems with furrows in the base coat which required sanding everything down and starting over again.

The new painting uses much tinier brush strokes, broadens the expanse of sky, slims down the trees, and adds a substantial amount of resolution and detail. There is still some indication of furrows in the repaired painting, but at least not as pronounced. The old painting, at left, is shown for comparison.

While working on this painting I would periodically tap upon the grisaille of a tiny portrait in the making to test it for tack. The portrait is based upon a photograph of a woman circa 1955. Today it appears to be dry enough to work on tomorrow morning. Timed just right this time - one project finished and the other one ready to go.  The final color painting will be adjusted for likeness.  Right now she looks a bit like my Aunt Margaret.

December 1, 2017

Return of the Prodigal Paintings

The last month of the year in any business, large or small, usually means inventory and clearance. I had been too unwell for years to do the kind of inventory and clearance required to keep my studio under control, well equipped and uncluttered. This year, however, still being mindful of the fact that I am running this body at about 30% of its former capabilities, I decided to tackle the problem of an overhaul. That actually required starting in October, due to my slow and awkward limbs. Yet even at 30%, some things can be accomplished.

Although it took five years and the help of a friend, I was finally able to get my unsold paintings back from Beaufort. All of them needed some form of repair, some more than others. I discarded two frames and restored another frame. A painting of an old shed in Blackville had paint torn off the top so I patched that up.

The two remaining paintings required extra work. One needed to be repainted entirely. I was never happy with it and am not surprised that the dull colors and bad frame caused people to pass it by. I repainted it entirely, changing the scene from spring to autumn.

As the grisaille on a small painting dries, I turn to that fifth painting, which I will also paint over again, almost from scratch. Scratch is indeed the operative word here because I noticed several large grooves in the ground underneath the painting that unfortunately appeared through the surface. They remind me of the scratches I used to make in spackling compound when I worked in construction.

Recalling those years spent trying to get spackling on sheet rock smooth, I’ve decided to go at this last painting with an eye towards construction. I sanded down the best I could, filled in the offending grooves, then sanded again. Body willing, today I’ll paint that last one over again.

November 29, 2017

Cover Design for My Women My Monsters

 
The last task for the completion of my chapbook of poetry, My Women/My Monsters, was finished a few days ago - a picture for the cover. This concludes work that was begun in 2012 and went through various permutations, including a one-woman show at the local university art gallery.
Each poem in the book is illustrated by a meticulously rendered black and white pencil drawing. My publisher thought to use one of these illustrations for the book cover. We narrowed this down to two choices. I liked one of these choices - the half self portrait I made with my fingers reaching around my eye to grab a pencil. There are, of course, many allusions here. The swan neck deformities in my fingers allude to the connective tissue monster of Ehlers-Danlos. The fingers circumscribe my left eye. The left is the one with the color deficit, hence the illustrations are in black and white.
Yet even though black and white is the theme of the book and would therefore make for an appropriate cover, I mentioned to my publisher that a color cover would be more engaging and that I would try to do our favorite illustration over again as a color painting.  I knew that I would have to keep checking my progress with my "better" right eye but I felt that I would be up to the challenge.
It would have been boring to make an exact copy of the original black and white illustration so I decided to embellish a bit. For one thing, a simple portrait alone would not be quite so monstrous. As monsters was the theme in this book I decided to use the arm from the illustration of Tomb Guardians and paint that on to the turned palm of the hand. Everything now dovetails rather nicely. The pencil guides the eye which creates the vision and the inner monsters grows on to the hand.

November 22, 2017

Cyber Sale Art

The end of the year holiday season generally takes me by surprise. This year I decided to prepare early. In September I polished up my web site. In October I reactivated my Etsy online market and made new business cards. In November new business stationary was printed. November also saw my book signing and my studio sale.

Setting up for my studio sale  allowed me to review a large body of work and notice some previously unobserved confluences across media. The pit fired vessels harkened back to the time I made large ink and watercolor paintings. I put them by an ink painting double portrait I had done years ago which was recently returned to me. I definitely like the marks made by sooty inks on paper and black smoke on ceramic.

My recent gallery wrapped printed paintings bore an uncanny resemblance to my earlier designs in ceramic. The gallery wrapped pieces were my way of combining materials that were odds and ends from other work: leftover painted muslin with stamped designs from my Liberty Snake project, an assortment of wood frames to pull the muslin over, ceramic sculptural buttons to top everything off. The ceramic sculptures the echo these designs are musical instruments that I will be making some performance videos of next month.

Other corners of the room exhibited confluences in design. The red arc of a plastic tongue in a snake reflected the red arc of a snake in the painting above it. In fact everything in that corner had a red theme.

I found the perfect antique easel for a tile with a dog design on it, the spots also echoed in the ceramic whistle below.

Thus far there were no takers on my little square canvases so I just loaded them up on Etsy for half the price that canvases that size generally go for and will hope for a good cyber weekend. With these small canvases I’ve reached my goal of having at least a hundred works available in this online shop: https://www.etsy.com/search?q=Janet%20Kozachek

November 11, 2017

Facebook Censorship of Art and The Problem of Decision Making Via Algorithm

Tomorrow I will have my book signing at the Portfolio Gallery. In conjunction with this book signing I will also be exhibiting and selling original drawings, some from The Book of Marvelous Cats, others just on the feline theme.

All was going well with my preparations. The work had been delivered. I ran a last minute ad on Facebook while preparing refreshment snacks. Then something happened to put a significant damper on the festive mood. Facebook wrote to me with a letter of "disapproval" for my drawing. I read their justification for their disapproval and not allowing me to advertise my drawings. I blinked in disbelief at their words. The completely innocuous drawing above was labeled by the Facebook crew as "indecent," "showing too much skin," "having sexual content," and "not in keeping with my product."

I wrote back to them explaining that there in fact was no sexual content. The content was about a man who took a bath, sat on a towel and looked at a piece of art work on his wall while his cats played in the background. If anyone actually read my description they would have understood this.

Here is the narrative that went with my drawing:

"It was Christmas Eve and Bertrand was alone. He turned up the heat in his apartment, poured himself a glass of white wine and sat on the floor to admire a large painting of dancing men that he had just purchased. The painting was just beyond the boundaries of his budget, but he had no regrets, for this piece of art made his soul smile. It was Christmas Eve, and although Bertrand was alone, he was not lonely. He had his music, his art, his warmth and his cats.
Enjoy this drawing in person tomorrow at the Portfolio Gallery in Columbia, SC and meet the artist from noon to 3PM."

To counter the "too much skin" charge from Facebook I pointed out that the figure has his back turned and not even much of that is showing. I simply stated that it is most certainly not indecent to sit on a towel and look at a painting. As to their last charge that it "is not in keeping with my product" I can only say that I am an artist who makes drawings. This is a drawing. My product is an exhibition of my drawings, of which this is included. The theme of the exhibition is cats. There are two cats present. Tomorrow I can only hope that there will be people present.

What caused Facebook alarm about this rather na├»ve yet joyful drawing?  I can only conjecture that they had used some sort of algorithm in the screening of images and that my drawing fell haplessly into that evaluation.  Hopefully they will correct this.  In the mean time, figurative artists, museums that exhibit nude paintings,  and galleries that exhibit figurative art should beware.  Facebook might think that you're obscene.

November 11 - 12 Update: Facebook stands by their evaluation.  The image is not allowed.  "Too much skin."  I had not realized that figurative art with nude or semi-nude figures is not allowed.  How, then, would a museum trip to the Sistine chapel be advertised?  Way too much skin there for sure.  So I put the question to Facebook on how, given their restrictions, would someone advertise something like an art trip to the Sistine chapel as their guidelines would not allow any images.  In reviewing their guidelines, not only are all nude images prohibited, but all draped figures as well.  The latter are described as "implied nudity."  We'll see how they respond.  It seems like the crew that drew up these guidelines had not anticipated art or art history tours.  In the mean time, the controversy simply made for some interesting conversation at my exhibition today.

November 10, 2017

The Bullet Pointed Life with Painted Leaves

The next ten days will be very busy for me. When things become this active my life becomes a series of small tasks, punctuated by art that I can complete quickly. The days are filled with activities that can be described by bullet points.

In between these bullet points, I am making small paintings of falling leaves. The leaves themselves are printed with stamps that I carved from soft linoleum. I dip the linoleum in inks and paints. I print these are previously faux finished papers.

* I have an exhibition and book signing this Sunday at the Portfolio Gallery in Columbia, SC from noon to 3 PM. The books and the work has been delivered but there are still some preparations to be made.

* I have a book cover design to paint that I have only just started. I’ve finished refining the interior illustrations as well as the text. Will I have the energy and concentration necessary to do the final work?

* The house needs to be cleaned much more thoroughly than usual for my open studio visit and fall clearance sale. Can I do this in ten days?


* Bills always arrive while we’re away. Oddly enough I don’t open them as soon as we come back home. Will I make the deadlines?

I should be attending to paperwork and other mundane tasks but I find that I can only do so much drudge work before the yearning to paint or draw surfaces, insisting to be fulfilled.

* The yard needs to be straightened out a little better. Are there simply too many leaves to rake up in time for my fall clearance sale the weekend after next?

November 8, 2017

Wrapped, Painted, Printed, Sewn and Stenciled Art

Preparing for a studio sale sometimes generates more art. The point is to clear out the studio to make room for more work and a more comfortable environment in which to create that work. It is always satisfying when clean up means finding interesting ways to use up odds and ends of materials.


On a recent trip to Charleston, a friend and I stopped by a junk shop where I purchased a collection of badly made wooden box frames. I hesitated to buy them because at ten dollars for seven of them, they were still overpriced. But my friend encouraged me to get these because she thought that I could find a way to cover them up with something.



The frames stayed in an annoying unused presence in a bag in the middle of my sunroom for over a month before I finally had a chance to dispose of them. After sanding out, gluing and putting putty on all the defects, I figured that they would be best used for small wrap around canvases.

I decided to make a wrap around canvas using the extra primed muslin I had left over from my giant painted snake project. For the small squares I also used the same stamps that I had made previously for the patterns on those three dimensional decorative snakes.

I cut the primed muslin generously in order to have enough to wrap around the sides and back of the wooden frames - covering up as much as possible. This I faux finished, stamped, stained and generally had a good experimental time with. When the paintings were dried I decided to sew on focal points using my previously made ceramic buttons. I liked the end effect yet I found that I liked the full design flat a bit better than wrapped around the edges of the canvas. Perhaps in the future I’ll just make larger squares with more elaborate designs.

November 7, 2017

History Revised and Recruited

In my last blog post, I mentioned my letting go of original drawings from my Book of Marvelous Cats and my surprise at being a little reluctant to part with some. Time, accumulation, and changes of circumstance generally do work their effects on sentiment. In addition to parting with my drawings, I will be putting miniature paintings of felines up for sale as well.
 The paintings date from 2010, when the world’s attention was focused on a group of miners trapped deep underground in a copper mine in Chile. For every day the miners were trapped underground, I made a small painting. I divided these paintings in to five sections: bats for when the miners were starving while waiting to be found, folk art bats with round luminous disks on their chests for when the bore hole that brought sustenance to them broke through, jaguars for the days spent waiting for the larger escape tunnel to break through, dogs for when the miners had to work to remove rocks as the escape tunnel bore down, and finally the birds for the flight out of the mines in the contraption named "the phoenix."

I made TIFF files of the whole collection and sent this to the Chilean Embassy. I don’t think anything was done with it, but the ambassador did give me a nice book on the history of U.S. Chilean diplomatic relations.

When the Chilean miners were rescued, they became stars for a while. I had some reservations about how they were being treated, fearing that as the news cycle ended and the focus off, the same miners would be neglected. This fear proved to be well founded. The miners lost their lawsuits, they fell on economic hard times. Some returned to the mines. I cannot imagine how awful it would be to swallow one’s feelings of claustrophobia and be forced once again down a mine shaft. The miners apparently did not benefit from the movie made about their trials, either, not even being given a bit part!

In a strange sort of synchronicity, the miniature paintings I made from that time have also been readjusted and reduced in a number of ways. They were never sold as a set. The price has been reduced somewhat. And the bold, brave jaguars? They too, were modified to appear as domestic cats. I’m still at work on them - giving them cat faces and cat ears and putting them back to work. I hope that they pay some bills.

November 6, 2017

The Book of Marvelous Cats Book Signing

The month of November will be exceptionally active. I will have a book signing at the Portfolio Gallery in Columbia, SC this Sunday in conjunction with an exhibition and sale of my original illustrations. In order to prepare, I spent a good part of October making small paintings and extra drawings for the occasion.

I don’t generally do this, but I held back some of my favorite illustrations from The Book of Marvelous Cats. I was aided in this by my husband not wanting to part with them all either. My husband’s sentiment was not surprising, as he has more attachment to things than I do. I surprised myself, though, by complying in tucking "The Magic Cat," "Aboriginal Cats," and "Mother Cat" back in to my folio. I also removed "Acrobatic Cats," and "Guardian Cat" for a patron who is purchasing them in advance of the book signing. The best ones!

Other preparations for my book signing event included obtaining better artist biography handouts, new business cards, new business stationary, and a great poster design. I do hope all this works and I can make a bit of an artistic comeback.