May 5, 2015
Barry Lopez is one of the writers who has ‘accompanied’ me on most of my adult journey as an artist. (See my post Barry Lopez, A literature of hope ). He is a nature writer, but that short description doesn’t do him justice. He is also a poet who feels the pain of the Earth deeply. And, he is an artist who understands and exemplifies what art is for, especially in these times.
I love these artists and role models,who have sustained their passion and honed their craft over the years. They are gradually turning into our present day Elders. Hearing Gary Snyder or Barry Lopez speak unfailingly reunites me with the best in myself.
This morning I looked at an almost completed draft of my book so far and couldn’t relate to it. I’d momentarily lost my sense of True North, and wondered how I would finish it with this late-stage failing of nerve. Unable to write, I decided to do some research for a later chapter on ‘art and wounded places’, and watched several of Lopez’s talks. And one of them showed the way out of of my impasse. It gave me a new lens for looking at my work and lifted me out of the familiar contradictions I usually get caught in when stuck.
He spoke about story telling. He’d had a conversation with a traditional man,( I sense he meant someone indigenous), and asked if this man’s people made a distinction between fiction and non-fiction like we do in Western society. The man answered, ‘For us, the difference isn’t between fiction and non-fiction, but between an authentic and inauthentic story.
Lopez asked him the difference and he said, ‘An authentic story is about us.’
‘Yes?’, Lopez asked.
‘And an inauthentic story is about you’, replied the man.
Lopez had a crucial insight as a result of this conversation. He realised that the story you tell as a story teller is not worth our listening to if it is just about you. He said,’We don’t need to know about you, we need to know about us’. I think what he is saying here, is that a writer needs to delve down beyond the purely personal until he strikes something universal in human experience which will illuminate all our lives. Also, adding my own note here, if an artist is working with rage or pain, she has a responsibility to transform it before it hits the page. We all know how bad life can be, we have the mass media to tell us all about that.
It is the artist alchemist’s task to harness that personal negativity and transcend it, and to use it as raw material to craft images of hope.
Lopez says that an authentic story needs to do two things; first of all it has to help. And secondly it has to be about ‘us’.
I want everything I write to end with this note:’Here is what I saw, what do you think?’. Instead of saying, ‘Here is what I saw and this is what you should believe’. -B.Lopez
The writers, artists and musicians I’ve respected most and who have inspired me in my life so far, are growing older along with me. Like Barry Lopez, time and experience distil their youthful passion to a focused potency. I feel enormous wisdom radiating from these people. But even more than the understanding they have gained through living and practising their calling, they embody compassion.
I want more than anything to see people do well. I want to see people thrive. And the system I see in place all over the world is killing people. I feel that as a physical pain, as grief every day when I get up in the morning. What drives me is – if you’re going to tell a story, tell a story that helps. If you’re going to collaborate with directors, filmmakers, artists et , make common cause with people whose desire is to help.
Not to direct the show or tell somebody else what to think, but to behave in a helpful manner for the benefit of everybody.
(See the 3 minute clip of this talk here )
I’ve been concentrating on developing my oil painting for nearly 5 years now. Having a long career as a fine artist, graphic designer and calligrapher up until then, I already had a good foundation of drawing and composition. So I didn’t have to start from scratch, luckily. It has been mostly about learning the medium, and I’ve shared that process here fairly regularly. This is my first painting after a several months interlude of copying the work of some other artists. I learned a lot from that process, mostly about paint application and relaxing a little.
Basically I’m satisfied with this painting, it is another step along the way. What I am sure of, though, is that this isn’t my destination- ie perfecting realistic representation. I’ll talk more about that in a minute. Meanwhile, this has a nice story behind it.
Awhile back, I took a photo of a bowl of nectarines at my mother in law’s home and did a few paintings from it.
It eventually landed downstairs near where Rende’s computer is. We moved my bottle collection out of our show window and they ended up in front of this still life. (You may recognise some of my first paintings of this collection from several years ago.)
So the bottles against the still life caught Rende’s magic eye, and he made several photos, they were so rich and juicy and deep, they nudged me out of my uninspired period- I had to paint them.
Painting something that is already beautiful is a major challenge! The question is, what can you add? The painting all the way at the top is a response to the richness of Rende’s photo, but it is also about mastering technique to capture what moved me. I liked the sharp clarity of the glass against the fuzzy background; a special challenge was muting the fruit still life behind the glass to make it look out of focus as it was in the photo.
But technique is never the end goal, it is simply a tool. My journey in paint is away from rendering to suggesting. But I don’t know how to do that, so I have to keep doing one piece at a time and let the work teach me. I don’t know if anyone can see the steps made since the first glass paintings, but I am moving closer to painting the way I feel.
Also important to me, not quite achieved in this last painting is letting go of form to the extent that the canvas surface becomes interesting in itself. The rhythm of the brush strokes, the layers of paint, the texture of thick and thinly applied colours all are more interesting to me than depicting a real object perfectly.
I want to paint that way NOW. But take it from me, this process of discovering your own vocabulary of marks can’t be rushed or forced. In ‘Art and Fear’, by Bayles and Orland, (super book by the way), I remember something about how important it is to develop pleasurable working habits, and that these somehow also help you to find your work. I think even the set up of your palette could influence how you use colour, for example. One person might place the cadmium yellow closer and another might place it at a far end, so it is less easy to reach- so you just end up using the colour closest to you.
I watched a video of David Hockney painting one of his landscapes from his show ‘a Bigger Picture’. All his years of daily work just flowed out of his brush like a guided dream. He did one complete painting a day, and it looks so easy! But watching him taught me about working from back to front (sky first, then branches) in a landscape. It completely changed my thinking, so this is the set up for the next painting, same subject slightly different crop. I’ve sketched in the masses in the background and foreground, and am aiming to suggest more and work even more loosely.
April 16, 2015
This morning I woke up with a number of things I could do. I could work on my book. There was also a painting in progress on my easel after a small dry spell. And there were several small tasks I could do concerning two community projects I’m working on. So, avoiding all these worthy tasks, of course I started to collect materials to make a holder for nesting material for the birds in our garden. Obvious, huh?
Why, when I have been longing to get into working with my paints, do I often try to avoid it all day? Maybe it is still because I separate it from my professional life, I can’t see it as ‘work’, so try to get other things done first. Maybe it is the feeling of how when I’m into the painting, it kind of grabs me by the neck and won’t let go; and whether it is going well or stuck, simply demands all of my attention.
Or more likely, I think I love this stage of painting most- when the sketch is there, no commitments have been made, and everything is still possible.
Who knows? At least the birds will be happy this spring. I hung it near the bird feeder and so far they have only been sussing it out at a distance.
Making it was really fun though, so was the procrastination, so much so that I didn’t do anything much all day.
A few tips about providing nesting materials can be found here.
March 26, 2015
This mobile was created from dried out daffodil flowers and their still green stems. It was near impossible to photograph since the air currents in the house kept moving it. And because it was against a window with a lot going on visually in the background, the photographer had to wait until evening to shoot it- and of course there is less light, necessitating a longer exposure. This in turn makes it a challenge to get something so prone to movement in focus, so thanks to my woodworker husband whom, luck has it, is also a professional photographer.
Below is reminder of the separate components before I strung them up (see post before this, Nature art). And below that are a few similar projects using natural materials, from previous posts, either here or on my other blog, tending time
March 24, 2015
Starting at the end of January, we’ve had a continual oasis of blooming spring bulbs on the dining room table. As one pot reaches its peak and fades, we replace it with a fresh new one.
Rende got fascinated with the dried up mini daffodils (in background), and made some great photos of them awhile back.
I was idly sitting at the table a few nights ago and picked some of the dried out flowers and stems and started playing with them. The results are below. They eventually inspired a mobile, which I’ll post soon.
March 10, 2015
From the wood I turned south and began walking out along the sea wall. Swallows scudded overhead in twos and threes, moving with fast wing flicks…Inland were vast fields, on which three or four black barns sailed like barges. To the seaward of the wall were the marshes, tinged purple.
-Robert MacFarlane, ‘The Wild Places’.
It has been awhile since I was this moved by a non-fiction writer. Moved in the way the best art moves us: to quote Lewis Hyde, from ‘The Gift': A work of art that enters us to feed the soul lets us experience a gifted state, and depending on our own abilities, we respond by creating new work (it doesn’t have to be art, but inspired by the artist we may find we can suddenly make sense of our own experience). The greatest art offers us fresh images that light up our imaginations and open up alternatives for our own lives.
The last time this happened I was in the middle of my career as an artist and calligrapher, and for years, I calligraphed one quote of Barry Lopez’s continually. Here is a straightforward handling of this particular quote-
But I also used the text as a starting point for work dominated more by imagery than by letters.
And I also did a series of collages, I think from the same book by Lopez, ‘Crossing open ground’.
So anyway, what I’m getting at, is that for the first time in years, I feel inspired by MacFarlane’s writing and sensibility to start to combine letters with my imagery again.
Anyone who loves walking, nature, history of place, or
good great writing should read this author. He sets out on these walks which take him and the reader to surprising places, both literally and internally. He’s exploring the theme of how landscape acts on us and we on it, and how outer landscape is formative for one’s inner psychic landscape. His experience resonates in a deep place with me, though I’m not drawn to emulating some of his other adventures – sleeping out on mountains and moors, by the sea and in dunes- sometimes in the winter!
I’ll leave you with some more of his words- here he is speaking about how being connected through technology has replaced and so robbed us of direct physical contact with the natural world:
We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world- its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits- as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb. A constant and formidably defining exchange occurs between the physical forms of the world around us, and the cast of our inner world of imagination.
The feel of a hot dry wind on the face, the smell of distant rain carried as a scent stream in the air, the touch of a bird’s sharp foot on one’s outstretched palm: such encounters shape our beings and our imaginations in ways which are beyond analysis, but also beyond doubt.
There is something uncomplicatedly true in the sensation of laying hands upon sun warmed rock, or watching a dense mutating flock of birds , or seeing snow fall irrefutably upon one’s upturned palm.
March 8, 2015
Watercolour sticks are affording me a new freedom. Believe it or not, the drawing/painting above started out as, ‘Beet still life with pomegranate’, you can see the shadow of the open pomegranate in the top right quarter. It was acceptable still life, but is was boring, so I rubbed it all out with water and just worked into some of the shapes that were left.
Next, a magazine photo caught my eye and I did a quick study using the watercolour sticks full strength.
So, the medium can be used to create powerful forms and light and shadow. I refrained from working on this too much.
Next, I drew a loose grid in the way I usually start my oil pastel drawings- filling areas in as I went. The main influences were the books I am reading right now- Robert Mac Farlane’s wonderful, ‘The wild places’, and ‘Women who run with Wolves’, by Pinkola Estes.
In the lower left corner, a little fox makes his first appearance. And there is a lighted house in the woods where the old lady sits near a roaring fire, waiting for the tired wayfarer to come in and be held and healed.
When I was in London in January, staying in my aunt’s flat after her death, I remembered a similar time 13 years earlier, staying in the same fifth floor flat while my mother was in her last days. There were several things that comforted me at that difficult time, one was looking down on a row of garage rooves and sighting a little fox curled up, resting after a night’s hunting in the city. He had made a nest of leaves on the warm roof, under some overhanging branches. I always looked for him after that, and derived an extraordinary sense of peace from seeing him safely ensconced in his little refuge.
I found myself looking for him this time as well, silly after 13 years, of course. No fox.
But one morning a few days before I left, I looked down and there was a fox, sleeping in the same place as his predecessor (well, who knows? How long do foxes live?). He returned every day, late in the day, secure in his little warm place under the branches, curled up with his soft bushy tail wrapped around him in the weak January sun. So he became a sort of totem for me, and an important part of my time in London. I decided to draw him, and what emerged was a sort of visual journal after the fact.
There was already a peacock appearing, (top right) which led me to the next drawing -of the Kyoto Garden in Holland Park. My grandparents, aunt & uncle, and mother all lived very close to this wonderful park. It has been as much part of my psychic inner landscape as anywhere I’ve ever lived. After my mom had died, I stayed in the Holland Park youth hostel, also right in the middle of the park. One more letting go for me- this past trip, I went to visit some of the staff who had become friends by now (hi Sally and Simon), and the hostel had been closed down.
Peacocks run wild all over the park, my mom and I, and later my aunt and I always walked though the gardens, wandered through the formal Kyoto garden, looking at the carp and waterfalls; we smelled the roses in the rose garden, looked in wonder at the gorgeous meters-long mural near the Orangerie, and stopped for a cup of hot cocoa in the little café.