April 22, 2009

Ideas Written Large

Large Ideas, Limited Budgets and Engineering Challenges
My clients had a problem area in their home - a large recessed area with a dubious- looking Asian painting pasted directly to the wall. The painting had become water damaged in areas and was unsightly. They wanted to have something cover this area of about eight feet by seven feet but didn’t want to remove the painting. My clients also wanted any art work covering this area to be easily removable for eventual transport to a new location. Lastly, the project budget amounted to what I would typically charge for something about a quarter of that size.
The problem of what to do within these constraints was bantered about for a few years. A large, lightweight, easily removable artwork seemed to point to fiber art - something that could roll up. But my clients couldn’t find a fiber art piece that suited both taste and budget. A large canvas would have to be put on an equally large frame which would make it not easily transportable. P A mosaic would be too heavy and a collage would take too long. So what I finally settled on was a painting on cotton duck canvas that would be attached to a large diameter dowel and rolled up like a scroll. To keep material costs down I proposed a minimalist approach to composition and colors- using mostly whites. A number of years ago, I had created a series of white, atmospheric paintings with touches of biomorphic details for an exhibition at the Lancaster Museum. The originals were sold off here and there a long time ago but I had images in my archive which I e-mailed to my clients. They settled on a particular composition that I could adjust to a much larger scale.
There was an Asian theme in the room where the large painting would hang so I brought everything in my Chinese art training to the fore in the execution of this project. For structure, I dismantled a damaged Chinese scroll to see exactly how the painting was attached and wrapped around the wood piece at the bottom. It was not simply rolled around the bottom but attached around the back of the scroll with the wood hanging somewhat like a sling. This clever arrangement enabled the scroll to hang flat against the wall and roll up easily. I decided to pattern my own canvas scroll after this design. Such little details like this make such big differences.
Preparing a canvas eight feet tall by eight feet wide that would hang freely turned out to require great patience and some engineering skills. First, the canvas had to be hemmed around the outside except for the piece that would wrap around the wooden dowel. The top had to be looped around to create a space for a removable rod from which to hang it - something like a curtain. This all required finding a seamstress with an industrial grade sewing machine. Through a well-connected artist friend I found just the person in a nearby town. Of course this meant somewhat of a delay getting started as I was dependent upon her getting around to the project when moved to do so but it did get done.
After squaring the canvas I then connecting the bottom to the wooden dowel with PVA white glue Priming the canvas was another challenge. I could not staple the canvas to a conventional stretcher because staples, or tack holes would show up around the seamed edge. So I ironed out the canvas as best I could and primed it carefully on top of painter’s paper. It was a mess. The paper underneath became moist and buckled, which caused the large canvas to crease as well. Not knowing how else to get a better surface I decided to use two by fours and L-brackets to make a large scale frame. I solved the problem of the stapling by stretching the canvas over the frame with contractor’s tape - twisting it and then taping it to the floor with a second piece of tape. After priming, the tape seemed to hold for most parts but I ended up having to buttress the dowel - wrapped end with another piece of lumber. For days my commission looked like it was a patient in traction but I got a good surface.
For a painting this size that would rest in a small room, I thought it would be best for it to be a light as possible - like bright sun on snow. I thought of the paintings one of my professors used to make years ago at Chinese art school. Master Gao was particularly fond of painting La Mei - a kind of Chinese plum blossom that had waxy yellow flowers that would open in the middle of winter. After he painted various intensities of yellow spots on the xuan paper, Master Gao would the prepare washes of pale orange and blue. The washes always looked like a sky in winter. Master Gao would then splatter the whole page with white gouache that he would liberally fling from his brush like Jackson Pollock.
I did something reminiscent of this Chinese master when working on this large canvas by slowly building up washes of greys, metallic silvers and earth tones. While still wet, I scrubbed in a variety of textures, using rags, brooms and windshield cleaners. It was the first time that I actually broke out a sweat while painting. Every gesture with the brush, fingers or other instruments had to be made quickly because I was painting in acrylic. After adding the washes and textures, I painted in a blizzard by flinging and dripping silver, white and cream. Painting on this scale with such vigor was a joy. I was happy to have a large commission and to feel to totally absorbed by the process of painting.
I am now beginning the finishing touches. There will be more solid areas but the challenge now will be to add structure without losing the atmosphere. I am looking forward to Monday, when I can dedicate another full day to this project.

April 10, 2009

Made from Local Clay

Last semester, I had occasion to teach a ceramics course at South Carolina State University. Although my terminal degree is in painting, I had done a lot of work in ceramic sculpture so it wasn’t too great a leap to offer my services. As I reviewed the text book I became fascinated by the section about using local, found clays. Shortly thereafter, I was passing by a construction site and saw what appeared to be a vein of good reddish buff clay in the mounds of dirt piled up by the side of the road. I went home to get a bucket and returned to this site to dig out my find.
After some months, I broke up the dried chunks and sifted them through a strainer. After mixing the clay dust with water I wedged the clay on a clean table. It seemed to be fairly plastic so I made a few small pinch pots to test it out. Alas, they cracked while drying and so I rolled everything up into a ball and put it away.
They say that clay improves with age. That may be so, for six months after I abandoned the ball of clay I took it out of its storage bag again and found it to yield to the kneading process with much greater plasticity than before. It was still an unknown clay and could not be counted upon to stay whole when dried or not explode in a kiln when fired if it did dry to a greenware stage.
So not wanting to expend too much energy on an uncertain product, I filled a plaster cast of a friend’s face with the stuff. Remarkably, the clay retained its shape well enough to work with it.
Releasing it from the mold, it bore the visage of a familiar face, but with only the bare essentials of shape.
When looking only at the shape of someone’s face, stripped of coloring, sounds, and movement, a structure appears that usually goes unnoticed. I’ve done numerous casts and am always amazed at what I find in a face. They are always smaller than in my memory. Often they are surprising and even a bit alarming. The disjointed noses! The jaw receding too much - or truly off kilter. Whether it is a natural desire for symmetry or a superstitious belief in the curative powers of changing an image to effect a change in what that image represents in reality, I cannot say, but I usually exploit the plastic quality of clay to correct these little imperfections. So I cured the deviated septum on my friend’s face in clay by slowly pressing and knocking the nose back into the center of the face. There was this secret, primitive feeling that by doing so I was relieving years of sinus pain.
After my little plastic clay surgery, I added and subtracted minute bits of clay on the face, avoiding any dramatic embellishments. Instead of smoothing out the surface as I usually do, I let the clay determine the patterns on the face by the way it naturally cracked or creased with movement. I emphasized this by rubbing the dried clay with black iron oxide. The clay was at an ancient home on this face - a facade that hid Native American blood.. It seemed oddly significant that a visage was made with the stuff that her ancestors walked upon and used to create their own pottery. Will this unknown clay survive the fire without cracking or exploding? Possibly but I’m not counting on it. If the clay does mature in the kiln then I will use it somehow, some way in the future.

April 2, 2009

Fool for Flowers

I am a fool for flowers. I come by this by natural means. My mother came from a family of florists. My father came from a family that farmed. I tell myself that my garden is "an investment" - after all, I am a painter and can use flowers in my paintings. But in fact digging in the dirt and hauling away debris is respite from my work.
Readers may find it odd that teaching and creating art can even be described as work. Indeed, these are the pursuits of leisure in many respects. But to produce income, these pursuits involve a considerable amount of record keeping, advance planning, advertising, product testing, meetings, and producing a product whether one is in the mood or not. Work, in short.
I have had a considerable amount of work in the form of small teaching contracts and have spent a large quantity of time organizing schedules while looking for even more contracts. It is difficult to say "no" to even the smallest of jobs when the Great Recession looms ominously.
When prioritizing becomes paralyzing and work overwhelms I take respite in the beauty of the irises that grow in my garden. The one pictured at left I captured just before the heavy rainfall pommeled it into oblivion. It is unfortunately the only one of its kind among my many irises. It arrived as a free bonus iris when I ordered a group of blues - which incidentally have not blossomed yet. Perhaps they won’t. A recurrent theme of my garden is the survival of the free and those plants that cost next to nothing. While an expensive ginger lily never so much as broke the surface of the ground, a strange violet flower that looked like a miniature hollyhock flourished. I had pulled the latter out of a crack in the sidewalk in Charleston I dearly wanted large black elephant ears plants. The one I purchased from the now defunct Cross Seed company faltered after one season and never returned. Meanwhile a pot of expired Asiatic lilies that I purchased for forty cents from the local BiLo proliferated into over a hundred sturdy plants. Ah! I thought, this soil is for Asiatic lilies. My husband concurred and purchased a few somewhat exotic specimens. They performed with not much enthusiasm, didn’t blossom, then expired. But another one that I found growing gratuitously between two rocks did just fine, producing enormous yellow blossoms. The blueberries bushes that I purchased died in short order. The peach tree that grew from a pit in the compost pile has taken their place.
Could it be that those things that have survived harsh treatment are innately hardier than the pampered rich? No, this is not social commentary. It simply seems to be the law of the jungle in a small garden plot. Lately I’ve been clearing out a new garden area. In the slow process of building a wall, repairing concrete, and removing debris my imagination runs towards what remarkable botanical specimen will grace this area. An herb garden? A Chinese medicinal herb garden? A pomegranate tree? A persimmon tree? Or perhaps a rescued pot of what not from the side of the road.