June 26, 2013

Getting Back to Slow Details

It is fun to work quickly in charcoal and pastel - the results are so spontaneous and immediate. By contrast, my pencil works often take days to complete. But I do find the latter quiet, calming and meditative. The pencil drawing above is a completion of a sketch of a model dressed in a satin and lace neglige. The sketch was the basis for a painting that is now in the Mark Coplan collection, which I believe is with his sister in New York. In the painting the model was dressed in pink and white with turquoise blue slippers. A blue cat and a pink cat rested at her feet. The drapery was gold and red. This painting was certainly a feast of colors. I recall Mark Coplan honoring this colorful painting under good track lighting in his dining room. It looked almost like an icon there.

When recalling the painting of this subject, I find now that I like the black and white drawing better. It captures more of the sitter’s personality - even many years removed from my observation of her. The details in the patterns of the fabrics are much crisper and cleaner in this linear style. The cats have been removed, or rather, not added because they were never there in the first place. But I did include an elaborately decorated wall clock .

June 23, 2013

Before and After: A Refurbished Ocarina

Taking a short break from my drawing project, I turned to refurbishing some of my ocarinas. The one pictured above and at right was pit fired in 2010. While I was giving him the critical once over before sending him off to market again, I noticed that he didn’t have a good polish and there were a few scratches. I refinished the whole surface, put another coat of wax on him and buffed it out. I then drilled out eye sockets in which I set pearl cabochons. For a final revamping, I etched out a sgraffito design on the top and bottom surfaces. The surface underneath (belly side) I now recall had a coat of white terra sigillata, which had been reduced
to black in the pit firing. The sgraffito design in this area brought out bright white details as I etched into the layer underneath the blackened surface.  You can see this better in the upside-down picture below. In garden variety clothes before, this little ocarina now goes to market better dressed.

June 22, 2013

Burning Bridges to the Past

I looked through my collection of drawings to find one more unbalanced composition to which I could add my last dancer. I found one that was lopsidedly ideal, calling out for a tall form to balance the blank space at the right. The drawing was a study I had made of an entryway to an alcove made luminous by stained glass windows. I hadn’t bothered to center the alcove entrance so it appeared to be sliding off to the left. My last figure addition - a repeat tracing of the dancer adjusting her skirt - anchored everything into a balanced whole.

This brought my series of drawings using my sketches of Degas’ statuettes to a close. At this juncture I decided to dispose of my dancer cut outs, lest I be tempted to keep using them and not
move on. But somehow the thought of just tossing the cut outs into the garbage to mingle with used tissues, chicken skins and kitchen sink refuse seemed too undignified an end. So instead of the kitchen garbage pail, I decided to give my cut outs a ritual burning in my pit firing kiln. Before burning the paper dolls, I colored them with pastels to add to the color effects of the flames, should there be any.

The burning went as planned, although it wasn’t as clean as I had anticipated, and there was an unsettled feeling that I was perhaps doing something naughty - like mean girls playing “Salem Witch Trials” with their paper dolls. Nevertheless, I documented the event like a performance art piece, despite the fact that their was no audience. And who knows? The images may turn once more into paintings.

June 20, 2013

Degas' Dancer Visits Mannebach-Salenstein

For my penultimate performance of dancing through my drawings, I chose to add one of my cut out dancing figures from Degas’s statuettes to an old landscape drawing. The drawing was done from a hillside at sunset in a small town in Germany called Mannebach-Salenstein. The dancer with the generous hips was featured here - looming large against the bright but darkening sky. I obviously favored her because she appeared in a number of my other compositions. This was her final appearance so I decided to regale her with a background that was large and dramatic.

Figures in my drawings have always had a close compositional relationship to their environments. The Mannenbach-Salenstein drawing is no exception. The arc of the model’s right arm echoed the shape of the tree limb on the right. Her left arm extended into the grasssy hillside- the fingers of her outstretched hand became absorbed into the blades of grass. Even the triangle formed by her crossed legs was repeated in the peaked roof of the house on the hill. The round hips was answered several times in the undulation of the hill. It was like a concerto - the figure being the single solo instrument whose cadences are answered by the orchestra of the background.

June 19, 2013

Degas' Dancers Return to Black and White

After finishing a drawing of two dancers in a rare foray into color pastels, I turned over the cut out templates that I made for this drawing and traced them onto another sheet of paper to create
a second mirror image drawing. This one I completed in black and white. Since this drawing was the antithesis of the previous one pictured at right, I created an interior architectural setting, in contrast to the atmospheric treatment of the background in the color drawing. For my charcoal and grey pastel drawing I used both an opaque and a transparent style. The area under the arch was made with think smudges of charcoal allowing the white paper to show through in what could be a diaphanous curtain. The floors, walls and dancers were made more substantially solid with black and grey pastels. Overall I like the effect and will use it again.

June 18, 2013

Dancers with a Touch of Color

I arranged two cut outs of sketches I had made of Degas’ small bronze statuettes of dancers on a clean page and traced them. I then made designs around them in sater soluble oil pastels. I hated this design so I proceeded to scrape it down, leaving a pale watercolor background as a basis for a new design. For the new design I used soft pastels.

People have admired my pastels from time to time, but I rarely do them. I’ve never been comfortable using pastels. I don’t really use them “correctly,” but wield them more like pencils and brushes. It is how I have to use them. I used to tell my students that everyone uses drawing and painting utensils with a certain touch as individual as a fingerprint. I believed that this touch was usually educated out of art students and it was up to the savvy instructor to help the student regain that personal connection of brain to hand through the media and on to the paper.

The way students are taught to use pastels might be correct but the layering techniques never seemed natural to my particular touch. My lines were harder, sinuous and tended not towards massing or layering. To get comfortable with a pastel I sometimes had to do the unthinkable and sharpen it like a pencil. I would use that to draw with or roll the pastel around its edge to get a fractured line, all the while thinking why can’t a pastel be more like a pencil? When my pastels resisted becoming a mass, I would smear the whole thing flat like a watercolor then draw lines on top of that - odd for a pastel work but more conducive to my touch.

I used these maverick pastel techniques for my two rollicking dancers - not very standard but I’m not unhappy with the results.

June 17, 2013

Degas' Dancers' Last Performances

I found a second 11" x 14" page of my conte crayon studies of the small bronzes of Dega’s dancers in the Musee D’orsay. I set about the task of cleaning, restoring and modifying the sketches into a presentable drawing. I soon became apparent from too many figures running off the edge of the page that this was not a drawing to be salvaged. But the figures themselves were interesting and they had sentimental value. I had used two of them on some of my early painted boxes, one of which is pictured at right.

Instead of trying to preserve this page of dancers, I decided to cut all the figures out and play with various configurations of them in groups of twos and threes. From these arrangements I made four new drawings. It wasn’t my intention to generate new works from old studies. I had only wanted to finish what I had begun years ago. I suppose these dancers called out to me to allow them one last performance before retirement.

For my first new work I used my charcoals and pastels in my arrangement of three dancers. I imagine them to be young ladies between the ages of twelve and fourteen - as Degas’ original models appeared to be. There was no indication of clothing on Dega’s original bronze models so the dancers’ performing dresses in this drawing are my own additions. Why should I not retire my models from service (to the painter’s studio) in style, with a spring in their step and fully dressed?

June 16, 2013

Retiring Degas' Dancers

I had written an earlier post illustrated with a page of charcoal sketches of Degas’ small bronze sculptures of dancers. While rooting through my notebooks, I came across three more pages of these. The one I pictured above was originally a small page with a sketch of a dancer grasping her shoe. When I was first using these sketches for paintings she made her way into a strange little painting on wood of an early automobile called the Invicta. I called this oil on wood painting “Catch Invicta” and sold it through the HOFP gallery in Columbia back in the early 1990's. Unfortunately I don’t have an image of this painting so can’t show it here.  But should anyone reading this happen to know where the oil on wood painting "Catch Invicta" is, do let me know and I'll add it to my growing archive.  This archive is now at the National Museum of Women in the Arts so you, too, can be a footnote in history.

Now that I am retiring these drawings of Dega’s dancers, I finished up the dancer grasping her shoe with charcoals and pastels. To add some bulk to the composition I added an image of a dancer from another page. That dancer was featured on one of my painted boxes. I also don’t have an image of the side of the box that features her but will show another angle and another dancer later.

June 14, 2013

Three Scholars at a Leaning Tower

Three scholars at a leaning tower. It sounds like a title for an obscure work of Chinese brush painting. But it is not. It was a scene from my summer in Italy, circa 1990. I had accompanied my husband on a month long trip to Italy, where he had won a National Endowment Fellowship grant to study in an on location seminar organized by Professor Julia Geiser and Professor Phyllis Bober. We were based in Rome for the six week engagement but took a number of sojourns around Italy, both as part of the NEH entourage of scholars as well as to follow our separate interests.

During our stay in Rome, for the most part I made my own daily arrangements for museum going and sight seeing while my husband attended seminar lectures and other official functions. But occasionally I would tag along on some of the NEH study tours and lectures organized for the seminarians. One such educational tour was an outing to Bomarzo. Bomarzo was a curiosity from the Renaissance. Apparently it was all the rage at the time to create “faux” Etruscan ruins replete with half buried semi-deteriorated looking statues and architectural fragments. One such manufactured ruin that caught my eye was a leaning tower and I made several sketches of this. I recently discarded them all save one. I chose the one which included three art historians, partly because I had used the sketch as a basis for two paintings, but also for sentimental reasons. I remember vividly the male art historian but cannot recall his name. The two women were Professor Phyllis Bober and her graduate assistant Marjorie Och (now a professor of Art History at Mary Washington College).

As I cleaned and revised my sketch, fleshing it out with charcoal and grey pastels, I recalled Phyllis Bober. Professor Bober was one of those rare gems of humanity, compassionate, a gifted educator with a brilliant mind and a wry wit. And despite her stature in academia she was entirely without pretense. It was a great comfort to me that Phyllis Bober was leading this seminar because although most of the attending scholars were pleasantly approachable, a few were somewhat diffident about my being an occasional tag along spouse at official NEH event. It was good to have on someone on hand who had egalitarian leanings and could make a community out of any group of people. In my fleeting opportunities to speak with Professor Bober, I was always charmed by her insights and by her attentive interest in my own observations. She was interested in a broad range of topics both in and outside of the field of art history. Her book Art Culture & Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy is certainly evidence of her range.

I could see that Professor Bober was much admired by her students. Who could not help but admire a trail blazing woman academician who advanced scholarship in a field that, at the close of World War Two, was still the provenance of men? I recall being moved by her self-effacing story of her reluctance and fear on her way to defend her dissertation before a panel of all men. It was a poignant story even then. I recall that women art historians among the attending seminarians outnumbered the men about nine to one. It seemed as though university art history departments in the later part of the twentieth century had become a safe haven for female PhD’s.

The three art historians at the tower in Bomarzo from the summer of 1990 are amorphous forms in my drawing. Yet I recall them as if it were yesterday... the man was looking up contemplating the tower, Marjorie was standing in a patch of sunlight which made her platinum blond hair glow like a gold nugget. And Professor Bober was standing, thinking, I know not what. An anonymous form that still embodies a pleasant piece of history.

June 12, 2013

Erasing Famous Names

When I was a traveling artist, I sketched everywhere - even while waiting at bus stops and train stations. Sometimes while as a passenger, I sketched other passengers en route to their destinations. The drawing above originated from a bus stop in Italy where I saw an old woman and a young man waiting on a bench. The woman watched me open mouthed as I sketched her as the man rested with his eyes closed, unaware of being studied.

I didn’t think much of this sketch as a work of art nor even as fodder for a future painting. In fact I used the sketch later to make notes all over the back and, unfortunately, on the front as well. The reason for this scribbling was that I was taking notes from a PBS show I was watching about the one hundred most influential people throughout history. I wanted to make notes of them all and even started playing a game with PBS by jotting down who I thought were the most influential people in history to see how many dovetailed with the PBS picks. I felt vindicated when our picks matched. I jotted these names down on the backs of drawings until I ran out of space, then scribbled them on the fronts of drawings.

Some time later, when it first occurred to me to revise and restore my travel collections of sketches, the ones with the scribbled names proved a challenge. On some of these I incorporated the famous names I had scrawled all over the drawings into the revised compositions - like the one of the boy at right. I was obliged to do this in part because the drawings were in pencil but the names were written in non-erasable ink. In the drawing of the young boy I thought that the contrast of the subject’s youth with the wise old names made for a certain intriguing art work, one not necessarily distracting from the other. Yesterday, I thought I could do the same thing with the drawing of the old woman but the names, as well as their position on the page just didn’t suit. Using extra black number 8B pencils I opted for a rather different solution. The extra ebony black pencil sufficiently obscured the ink names under a blanket of dark patterns. I manipulated these patterned shapes into things that looked like a collection of purses. Other shapes looked like gift-wrapped breads or maybe just mystery shapes. Names were hidden, but if one looks closely such notables as the inventors of the birth control pill and photography can be vaguely discerned.

The pattern in the woman’s dress is largely invented, but not her pearl necklace. The stained glass window and the window with the plant are also inventions, as is the man’s knapsack. There are no famous personages to be found in this knapsack - just decorative embellishment.

June 6, 2013

The Art of Effective Questioning: A Study in Speaker and Audience Engagement

This is my three-hundredth entry on this blog. It may have no greater significance than being entry number two-hundred and ninety nine, but I like using even numbers as the milestone I believe them to be. I’ve chosen to celebrate this milestone by writing a short article about a course I had designed that I had meant to write two years ago before I became ill. I’m reminded once again about this course after completing a charcoal and pastel drawing of students at a lecture, pictured above. This entry is about that course and what I learned from it.

I loved my work as a lecturer. As I continue to battle a protracted, difficult illness,  the loss of my teaching career is one of those things that I feel acutely.  I miss the interaction with students - especially the ones who were inspired and appreciative.  Miracles do happen, and I may one day return to teaching, but It is most likely not realistic hope at this point.

Yet I can still can cull from my past teaching experiences and record some highlights from what I have learned over the years. It may not be the same as the social interaction but it at least affords me the opportunity to be a communicator once again.

The course did not initially go well. I was confused about my assignment. It was too vaguely defined, I didn’t have enough interaction time with my students and I felt that this made me underused and overpaid. Now, to most college teachers that would probably sound like an ideal scenario. It could very well have been true that I was looking the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, ungrateful wretch that I was. But I needed to feel deserving of my earnings and I desired that my creative work be given time and consideration. My job was to bring at risk youth from the Washington DC area to a series of art lectures given by my colleagues. I was not really clear as to what I would be doing with regard to my own input to educate these students. They were scheduled to go straight from dinner to the lectures so there was not really a designated time or place for me to interface with them.

My first reaction to this dilemma was to fret. I fretted compulsively before I arrived at my job and well into my stay. I imagined myself featured on Fox News as an example of a waste of taxpayers money. Never mind that the program I was working in was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Fox News would find me nevertheless.

After I wore myself out fretting, it soon behooved me to replace confusion and anxiety with reason and direction. So I analyzed the problem and came up with solutions. The first problem was to find a place to meet with students - no matter how little time I had with them. This turned out to be a classroom in the basement of the lecture hall. It eased my mind somewhat that I could be more than be a chaperone from dinner to the lecture hall. The thought of that was rattling my Scottish Protestant bones and Eastern European work ethic.

The second problem to resolve after finding a designated place was to carve out a niche of time between dinner and class. I managed to fetch a mere five to ten minutes but it was something. The third task was to find a way of maximizing that small allotment of time to teach something rewarding and useful. It was clear that it too little time to introduce a topic of my own. I would somehow have to link my remarks and pointers to my colleague’s talks. My input would have to be the planetary gravity to the lectures of the stars.

I decided that my five to ten minute lectures would be a mini course on how to effectively listen to a lecture and to ask informed and pertinent questions of the lecturer. I spoke with my students about different types of questions, such as closed ended and open ended questions. I charged them with the responsibility of asking the types of questions that would generate dialogue - questions that would benefit the general audience as well as engage the speaker. I told them not to shy away from difficult subjects if it would set an atmosphere for effective and educational dialogue. In my ten minute class, I actually assigned homework: the students were to do background research before attending a lecture. This, I told them, was the first step to preparing educated questions. I had my students study the subjects the lecturers would speak on and to check the various artist’s web sites and publications for an overview of their work.

Once I outlined these goals for my students I realized that I would have to set the same goals for myself. I must admit that my design of this course was the most self effacing activity of my teaching career. And why? Because I was neither an effective listener nor an intelligent questioner. I sat through lectures like a stone, sometimes daydreaming and losing the thread of a talk entirely. Often I was thinking more about my own impending lectures. I was impatient and self absorbed. I never prepared for a lecture by doing background research. This was the first course I taught that required a change in my own habits. I would need to practice what I would preach, to use a somewhat hackneyed phrase.

I first set myself the task of reading about my colleagues and looking more closely at their work. I got to know them better and I was impressed by their hard work and accomplishments. Some of these instructors were new and it was fascinating and exciting to read about what they would contribute to the program. Others I had know for about five years. But I was only just know learning about them in greater depth - which fortunately generated some long overdue respect on my part.
One interesting discovery I made from y background research was that many of the artist/lecturers started out as scientists. Even artists who were not practicing scientists often started out as science majors before turning to art. As a former biology/pre-med major this piqued my curiosity. We had something in common - sometimes close things in common: like being derailed from a potential medical career by organic chemistry as in one artist’s case. Since I had to practice writing pre-lecture questions, my first question centered around how these artists reconciled their backgrounds in science with their current vocation in visual art. Was it an abrupt turnabout or was there a thread of continuity between the laboratory and the studio? Were they both about experimentation and discovery? By way of example, I broached this topic during one of the first lectures so that my students could see background research at work in producing thoughtful questions.

During the initial art lectures, I noticed first of all that there were some logistical problems to address. The students tended to gravitate towards the back of the room. I had them move their chairs to the front row. After all, their responsibility was to spearhead the movement towards speaker and audience engagement. I sat up front as well. It forced me to look more alert than I usually am. By actively listening to the lecture for the purpose of inquiry, for the first time, I found myself not slogging through a talk in a semi torpor. And my newly found state of alertness had its desired effect upon my students. They asked questions based upon their research. They listened well and did not shy away from asking difficult questions.

I was proud of the young lady in my entourage who asked the blacksmith about the number of women in blacksmithing. The general audience benefitted by finding out that there were not only women in blacksmithing but that the then president of the blacksmithing guild was a woman!

As the lectures continued a certain rhythm was established. There were not only lecture questions, but post lecture reviews the following day as well. Asking students to review and comment on the previous night’s lecture seemed to reinforce their listening skills and to think of lecture topics in terms of ongoing research and dialogue. One interesting issue that arose in a post lecture review was the subject introduced in a previous lecture concerning lost Native American craft skills that were now being researched and reintroduced by Anglo-American researchers. My students were divided on how to reconcile this - knowledge taught in this century by the descendants of those who had stolen this art in previous times. But my students were willing and able to discuss the ethical ramifications of this and other thorny issues.

It appeared to me that the artist/lecturers developed a respectful fondness for my students. The students were invited to visit studios. They were invited to take part in demonstrations. They were actively and joyfully engaged. I hope that they continued to be so engaged in their future studies. This was the most rewarding daily ten minute course I had ever taught ( two hours and ten minutes if you count my attending the lectures and goading my students on). The best courses are always the ones where the teacher learns as much as the students.

June 5, 2013

An Unexpected Bounty of Beads

A good friend of mine used to call herself and me the dumpster diving divas. You never know what treasures might be found there and nothing quite compares to getting something for nothing. My latest find was from a dumpster at a construction site in Charleston. There, on the edge of the dumpster, was a box full of buttons and beads. A number of beads had fallen to the ground but I was determined to acquire them anyway. A kindly construction worker helped me pick the beads out of the mud and put them back into the plastic box they had fallen from. I was glad to have the help because my gimpy legs were giving out - I can’t squat like I used to.

We took the muddy beads and case back to Orangeburg where I washed and rinsed the beads and laid them out to dry. I washed the box out as well and let that dry. Then I sorted the beads into some semblance of order and put the whole thing in my utility room for some time in the future when I might use them. That time came sooner than later for the very next day I was toying with a small two hole ocarina trying to see if I could drill out a third functioning sound hole. The hole was clean and round but without sound. I resorted to my usual fallback measure when that happens and drilled out the hole just large enough to inlay one of the glass beads from my dumpster treasure box. The color and decoration seemed just right.

June 3, 2013

Revisiting Drawings of Persian Ceramics

I had made many sketches of the motifs on Persian ceramics during my visits to museums around Europe and the U.S. Some of these made their way into paintings and tile work. The one of the ibis pair above was the foundation for two oil paintings. One of these paintings is in a private collection in Kutztown, Pennsylvania and the other is somewhere in Charleston, South Carolina. The drawing at right of the man running with a saber became the basis for one of my painted tiles.

The original sketches have now been cleaned, restored and fleshed out with tonality and details. The details are from my imagination because I have no notes on how they were decorated. Some of these details, like the spots and dots in the background of the ibis drawing, actually hide the occasional drop of paint that fell onto the sketch while I was painting. I added similar dots in the background of the saber man to make the drawings a matching pair.

While completing these drawings I established hard edges and taper lines in imitation of brushwork. It was a brushwork method gleaned from not only observation of Persian miniatures but also by the practice of the linear style of Chinese brush painting. Nothing beats a good clean tapering line.

The drawings make a nice pair. I’m glad that I hadn’t made a detailed sketch from the ceramic decoration. It enabled me to give free reign to my own designs and imagination.

June 2, 2013

The Joys of Photoshop

The joys of photoshop!  My drawing from my last post has had its sad warp corrected and has been balanced for contrast.  So even this old dog can still learn a few tricks.  I could have just uploaded the corrected version but this way the learning curve is visible.  The cycladic statue can now be seen in his entirety as well as the decorative border on this pencil drawing.

June 1, 2013

Archaic Statue of a Woman and a Cat

Where did I see her and what was she? This statue came out of my travel notebooks and seems to be either an archaic Greek Koure figure or a late Egyptian statue. Whatever she was, she is now bedecked with jewels, sports a patterned dress and has a new cat companion. I like how the cat’s head pops into the highlighted area. More pattern upon pattern. It keeps me occupied and distracted from unpleasantries.

Unlike most of my other drawings from my travel books, this one never made it into a finished painting. I suppose the composition was too awkward and strange. So this drawing is the only complete image of this mysterious statue.