August 28, 2009

Wings Too Short to Fly With

As an artist it is often necessary to change focus abruptly and expeditiously in order to survive as a creative person. This means switching seamlessly from art teacher to studio artist to entrepreneur. Donning various hats on short order is not always easy - especially when settled into one frame of working mind for an extended period of time. Needless to say, my summer teaching jobs left me inspired but rusty in my own studio. I have often heard it said that teaching art can be so consuming of one’s energy that it can become all but impossible to pursue one’s own creative work. After a long but necessary hiatus from the studio to travel and teach I could sense my lack of concentrated presence as I sat down to get back to my own studio to work.
Indeed, I picked up my clay with my brain commanding me to "create!" "sculpt!" "now!" But all I could do was hold the clay and stare vacantly at the wall.
But then a curious thing happened. Despite being tired a small clay figure arose from my hands - senseless at first and uninspired - but slowly his form took shape. He was a man, sitting up from a long sleep perhaps, with his hands pressed over his ears to block out some cacophonous sound.
I added small wings to his back and made up a preposterous explanation about the sculpture for my inquiring husband.
"You see, it is about an angel distraught at having only very tiny ineffectual wings. He closes his ears with his hands to drown out the other angel’s songs because he cannot fly up to heaven to be with them," I said. Words like that come from a tired person’s mouth. There was a hint of self-deprecating mockery.
The winged man was originally intended to be a fixture in one of my relief mosaics. But there was a problem with his becoming too much a figure in the round and now a free-standing sculpture. Now that he could not be included in a relief mosaic I had to do something else with him. So I created a round pedestal and affixed him to it. The pedestal looked like a lid. But a lid needs a jar so I ended up making that as well - an enormous coiled vessel. I had never made a coiled vessel so large and was surprised that I could do it. It will barely fit in my kiln and I am hoping that it won’t explode when I finally fire it and put this piece together.
My man of the stump wings soon had compatriots - more reclining men that will soon find there way into my "Archaeology" series of mosaics. With these three, this series takes a different turn
The figures are not resting quietly like the previous ones in this series but are in some distress - blocking out sounds with their hands, holding their poor beleaguered heads. Even though they will go their separate ways in finished pieces, I noticed that they look well as an ensemble. So from wings too short to fly with, new directions in art evolve.

August 23, 2009

Teaching That Last Little Bit of Magic in Mosaic

In the course of creating art, there are sometimes phenomenon that are as persistent as they are difficult to explain. This is particularly true when I make my mosaics. Mosaic making is a slow process of assembling items piece by piece. I incorporate a lot of found objects in my mosaics which often slows the process down even more since it might take a while before I find just the right thing to finish a piece. There is some magic to this. When I start nearing the end of a work, with just a few more pieces to go, that last element which ties the work together and fits exactly into a preformed niche, often presents itself to me in a serendipitous fashion. I might find it in an antique store, someone’s attic, or even on the street. It is almost as if the yearning of the incomplete space conjures up just the right thing to fill it.
When teaching, I usually like to be able to explain every thing that goes into an art work. But lately I’ve added an element of mystery to the heuristic process - a blank space in which something wonderful can happen. In my most recent mosaic course, I incorporated the mystery of the desired fill-in-the-black piece when I explained to my students that just at the critical juncture in creating a work of mosaic art, the right piece will appear. To their wonderment, this actually happened. A student working on a rather ordinary mosaic consisting of rather mundane strata of green tesserae was presented with an old porcelain doll’s head by an instructor teaching a class in an adjacent room. While passing through my class, he noticed that her art work needed something and thought that this old doll’s head he had lying around would be just the thing. It was. The head with the green flowers in the hair became an effective focal point for the mosaic. Another student found an effective narrative for her work in a found tile that had a primitive depiction of a man with a club and a reclining woman. She fragmented the tile and created rivers of glass between them. Another student had a green stone in her bag of goods that helped move the green colors around the primitive tile mosaic.
Perhaps there is no real mystery to the phenomenon of the last little bit of magic that goes into a mosaic. It could be that the suggestion of Devine mosaic intervention itself makes students more receptive to exciting possibilities in their art. Or perhaps, staring at the empty pockets of space causes the shape of those spaces to be carried in one’s mind during the journeys outside the studio during the course of the day and therefore easy to see objects that fit the mental template. But explanations can take the fun out of creating, so I just enjoy the seemingly spontaneous discoveries in making art and hope that my students do as well.
The featured mosaic is by my student Karen Murchie.

August 12, 2009

The Secret Abstract Expressionist

The Abstract Expressionist Within
As creative human beings we have two inheritances: our genetic nature and our learned traditions. My featured painting today is a combination of a pedigree of pedagogy and ties to family. The detail above is a section from a large commissioned portrait of my mother as a young woman. The painting is sentimental for its peachy coloring and somewhat whimsical mood of the sitter. It reflects my mother’s tastes and attitudes which suit the predilections of the owner of the painting, my brother.
But there is something beneath the surface - hidden in the corners and backgrounds. It can only be seen if one looks past the subject. The section in the lower right corner of the painting is a window to a different world - a world that is not the rural New Jersey of the subject, but a New York sensibility that began more or less in the late thirties. In order for viewers to see it, I’ve extracted this window and reproduced it separately at the top of the page.
This is the world of my painting ancestors. I am what you would call a third generation abstract expressionist. The color and composition theories that I learned from my educational forebears comes in a direct line from my teacher’s teacher, Hans Hofmann. Hans Hofmann could be considered the father of Abstract Expressionism, and, in a sense, my pedagogical grandfather. His painting schools in both Munich and New York, as well as his writing, influenced a myriad of artists. In preparation for a lecture and painting class I will be teaching at the Columbia Museum of Art on August 29, I have been studying the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1930's, 40's, 50's and 60's. This has meant reviewing the writings of Hans Hofmann, Clement Greenberg, as well as some more recent scholarship. As I reviewed the paintings and read the art once more, it suddenly struck me just how good my fortune was to have studied with these modern masters in New York. It added meaning and reality to words. . It made art history part of personal history. Paul Resika’s visage on the internet, for instance, as one of Hans Hofmann’s more successful protege’s, was not just text and information. I could hear the booming voice, see the eagle eyes, and recall a commanding presence in the New York studio. Abstract Expressionism and its legacy was a powerful developmental force like that upon the development of visual art in the United States. Even if you didn’t agree with the way they evaluated art or all of their precepts and theories, the Abstract Expressionists and their spiritual progeny set some valuable standards for looking at paintings.
Their paintings resisted a narrative interpretation but the artists opened up the canvas to sacred journeys. It is from them that I attempted, and still exhort my own students, to fill every inch of the painted surface with nuance and interest. The freedom from directly copying a model, allowed for greater experimentation with paint as an means to express mood, insight, and perceptions through gestures in paint. It was a dance with the media that was often nature based and more often than not expressed an inner nature as well.
According to Hofmann, a painting should never be flat. The "push and pull" of color against color and shape against shape should create an atmospheric depth on the canvas, allowing the viewer to imagine floating or flying through it to another world. This world could look like mountains, forests, the depths of water. Or it could look like the crystal structure of rocks, the interior of a cave, or perhaps the paint on a weathered door. The painted surface provokes imagination. It is the joy of looking at these richly painted surfaces that still makes me impatient with paintings that look like a mustard stain on someone’s shirt.
In the painting of my mother, there are two hearbeats; the sentimental beat of literal maternal ties and the beat of grandfather Hofmann. Although Hofmann resisted a narrative reading of paintings, there is a way to read this particular painting - an easy reading because it is figurative. The hand of the figure points down to the ground. But what should be ground is atmosphere. It is about the past and about the future that one escapes to -amorphous but real nontheless. The challenge this month is to see if I can make a future for fourth generation Hofmann students.

August 4, 2009

Time for Silence, Space for Inaction

In Chinese calligraphy, there are moments where motion stops. The brush comes to a halt at the end of a stroke. During this pause there is a collection of energy and reorientation before movement begins again. The non-movement is called the dun, and is often preceded by a firm exhalation and planting down of the heel of the brush - almost like the heel of a dancer at the end of one leap and preparing for another. This moment of pause is not without its drama, for it concludes one movement and anticipates the next.
I often think of the dun when I have a protracted flurry of activity in one sphere and have to switch for another - like now when my period of gypsy teaching and attendance at arts festivals ends and I begin to prepare for autumn conferences, solitary studio work, updating records and doing more research for new course offerings. The former is exuberant and the latter quiet and reflective. Plunging from one life into another without a pause, I find to be too disorienting. So the dun as a state of mind as well as physical inaction is important to me. Sometimes a pause is filled with mindless but necessary action - like cleaning up and reorganizing the studio space for the next round of activity. Or I take a useless ride to nowhere.
I often think of the dun when I witness first hand as well as read about the epidemic of texting and twittering in this country. I see the lack of the pauses necessary for reorganizing a life when I read the ceaseless chatter on Facebook. Some of this is fun, of course, but at the risk of sounding like a party poop extra ordinaire, I find that if I don’t ignore most of the invites, I start to feel like a chattering monkey. So I log on and sweep out - probably mortifying cyberfriends with my misanthropic presence and virtual gift refusals. It is tough love, I try to tell myself. They should be finishing that last chapter of a novel, writing a song or a poem, or just luxuriating in a moment of precious silence.
What, I wonder, is so fearful about silence and inaction, that we must fill every hole in the day with activity? Will something or someone we don’t want come in and fill the space or time before we plug it up ourselves?
I taught Chinese calligraphy again for maybe the thousandth time this past summer. And I noticed that my American students had the same problem they always have with it - they don’t know when to stop moving. The movements were difficult but the dun was harder. Eventually they got the hang of it but had to be reminded to alter their speed from fast to slow, to twisting, then STOPPING and PAUSING, then repeating.
So for anyone reading this, I invite you to join me in reflecting upon the seated faceless form I painted and DO NOTHING for five minutes. Then reflect upon what is really important. And share with real friends in real time with real gifts if that is possible. If it is not, then share a heartfelt thought that took some time and intent.

August 2, 2009

The Little Black Pot

The Little Black Pot
Little black pot
embraced by a bear
smoothed into being
by hands warmed in the sweat of the sun
Generation to generation
folded their earthen coils
onto hollow clay
shaping them into vessels
that held the breath of their ancestors
Shaman’s airs created languorous notes
that could not leave the hollows of their heads
Makers of bowls
pressed into existence by hands
widened by what they held
Creators of twin jars
that howled with the waters
flowing through the conduits
that inextricably bound them
Parched lips touched red earth
polished by the round stones
that once tumbled in the bellies of dinosaurs
on their antediluvian journeys
The sojourn of the soul
scratched out a white line
a time line that meandered
across the black and brown clouds
hovering over burned earth
around and around
the world of a polished vessel
Generation to generation
hands rubbed their essence into clay
oil of the flesh
eased its way into the little black pots
Turning, turning
Hand held vessels
blackened by smoke and fire which consumed the air
beneath a nest of gnarled branches and the dung of animals
Hands caressed the surface that soothed the heart
and wiped away the pain of feeling less than yet being more than
a little black pot

The experience of learning a different art form can sometimes have welcome benefits to one’s own art. The course in Tewa pottery I completed at Common Ground on the Hill caused me to revise one of the poems in my book manuscript, Moments in Light and Shadows. I had painted a small canvas from a sketch I made of Kathy (Wan Povi) a year ago and later composed the poem to accompany the painting. The painting and poem are in the chapter of the book called Journeys, which contain images and texts relating to quests for knowledge and understanding. The search is either literal, in the form of people depicted on pathways, or spiritual, in a subject’s exploration of a personal past and aspirations for the future.
There is nothing quite like empirical knowledge as a source for enriching writing or any other art form. After being exposed to the physical process of making the black pottery that I depicted a year ago in the painting and poetry, I was able to revise in such a way as to insert some quirky gems about the process involved in the making of Tewa pottery - such as the use of stones from the digestive systems of dinosaurs for burnishing vessels. The very last line of the poem "... the pain of feeling less than, yet being more than a little black pot," is a somber way to end the verse this time around. It refers to a brief mention during my class about Kathy’s work with women who have been victims of domestic violence, some of who were also creators of blackware pottery. It occured to me in rewriting that the burnishing of these vessels was a way of rubbing out the pain of feeling like an empty vessel or being used as a receptacle for another’s fear and anger. "Yet being more than" offers, however, a ray of hope in the recognition that despite how it is used, there is an intrinsic value to a person’s life that can be grasped and realized by the self.