What we need more of

November 24, 2015



Art holds time, oil pastel collage, S Zoutewelle-Morris

Art holds time, oil pastel collage, S Zoutewelle-Morris

It has been ages, nearly 3 months since I posted. Hi again, to the handful of faithful followers who make this worth doing.

Crazy months dealing with health issues. There is an operation coming soon, and hopefully after that things will settle down into a more normal routine again.

My art is in a turbulent period of its own. I think I included some of the newer experiments this last summer,where I was letting go of form and trying to paint more intuitively. I’ve been more comfortable with watercolour sticks (a kind of crayon that is water soluble) and collage lately, than oil paints. I want to do quick, spontaneous studies rather than labour over one painting.

Rende and I have an upcoming exhibition in a high quality interior store here in the north of Holland. He’ll be showing woodwork and photography, and I’ll hang 18 pieces, oil pastels and oil paintings. I’ll link to the site when they’ve got our info there.

I know I’ve posted the art above before here, and probably the quote as well, but it is worth repeating:

What we need more of is slow art; art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and making whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in ten seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures.
In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.
– Robert Hughes


Cherry wood music stand made by Rende Zoutewelle

Cherry wood music stand made by Rende Zoutewelle

This summer, my fine woodworker husband has been working on some music stands. The one pictured above is made from solid cherry. We designed it together early on in our marriage (which is also often a working partnership) and two previous ones have been made and sold, one in mahogany, and a lighter coloured one in beech.

Rende’s workshop is next to the house, so I get to see from close by the magical transformation of planks of wood into works of art. I thought it would be nice to record and share the creation process since most people aren’t familiar with the different skills and the amount of patience involved.

The project is imagined, designed, and drawn and the wood is selected. It needs to be seasoned – dry enough to cut and plane without warping with changes in humidity. Some wood lays for months/years in humidity controlled environments before it can be used.

Rende started with the more labour intensive top- the surface that holds the music. The design was traced on the cherry plank and holes were drilled in the parts needing to be cut out so that the saw blade could be inserted. Note all the hard edges at this stage, it looks like a flat cut-out. Later it will be carefully shaped into the softly rounded, sculpted form you see in the finished version above.

The top is set aside while the base is glued together. It starts out square, and the moveable middle part for adjustable height is already planned in and placed.

Working on the base

Working on the base

Then, the body is mounted on the lathe and turned using razor sharp chisels and gouges.

In this next series of photos, the joints for the legs are made. Slots are routed out of both the leg and base, pins are inserted, and legs are fitted and glued. Like everything else in this process it is precision work. Being even millimetres off at any step will result in something looking crooked or not standing straight.

Once the base is ready, it is time to do the finicky finishing on the top piece. This is where a lot of the patience comes in. The curves are painstakingly carved and smoothed to look like curling branches and leaves. Deadly sharp- (you could shave with them) chisels and knives are used. The forms are sculpted and worked until the craftsman is satisfied. Then they are worked to a still greater degree of perfection, until you really couldn’t find a nick or scratch or chisel mark.

Next comes the laborious hand sanding process. Rende uses strips of sandpaper in a low grade (rough) to get between the tight curves of the design. After having gone over the front,back, and sides, the insides and outsides of all the curls, he sands it all over again with the next finer grade. And finally, when it looks smooth to me, he goes over the entire surface again with the finest grade of paper which is so fine, it almost polishes the wood.

Using narrow strips of sand paper to finish the rounding process

Using narrow strips of sand paper to finish the rounding process

Note all the used strips of sandpaper on the workbench

Note all the used strips of sandpaper on the workbench

Finally, the top is glued onto a support attached to the slender middle column running down the centre of the base. The little knob on the side for adjusting the height is turned on the lathe and slipped into one of the holes on the side.  Then everything is oiled with several coats of Danish oil- a mix of natural oils and varnish. The light looking raw wood warms up into a deep honey coloured shine.

The process takes about two weeks of steady work. Whoever buys it will have a beautiful functional music stand to grace a music room or living room, but also an heirloom that will be in the family for generations.

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Taking risks as a painter

August 20, 2015

Beets from garden - oils 50 X 60 cm

Beets from garden – oils
50 X 60 cm

Have you ever attended a painting workshop and been given a chance to work completely outside of your habitual approach? You’re freed up, you make some pieces that really surprise you during the day, new possibilities suddenly seem endless. You go home on a ‘workshop high’ resolved to start working more freely from now on.

Here you are, back at the studio- there is a blank canvas in front of you, all your materials are there arranged as usual, your workspace is the same. The stimulation of the other people, the instructor, the unfamiliar environment, and above all the uninterrupted time just for you, are in the past. You try to recover that feeling of freedom, but before you know it, you are working as always, wondering how to get out of a rut.

So how does one integrate new insights and experiences into old work patterns and actually begin to let their work change and grow? Many of our habitual ways of working have grown with us and are an important part of making our unique kind of work. But sticking exclusively to one way of working doesn’t lead to the kind of risk taking that is needed for growth and renewal.

I’ll share a recent experience with some visuals which may help.

In my last post on artists needing play time, I spoke of Shaun McNiff’s suggestion to begin working, not out of a concept (the mind), but out of the body- using a movement or gesture and translating that into marks on the canvas. And then using the interaction with the materials to keep taking steps in developing the composition.

I’ve been working in oils commitedly for 4 years this month, completing around 15-20 paintings a year. Mostly I’ve been learning the medium, since in my career I worked mostly in watercolours, drawing and acrylics. I feel constrained by just realistic painting, and have been trying to free myself up to work more loosely, to let go of realistic portrayal and to use colour more intuitively.

The painting of beets opening this post is my most recent one, I liked where it was headed, but it was still too slavish to the photo I was working from. In the weekend, I did as McNiff suggested in his book and used all kinds of media and movement to do a series of free work. Here are the results below.

free expression drawings

free expression drawings

At the time I couldn’t see how to bring what I’d learned into my oil paintings. So I did a series of watercolour stick drawings, but first scribbled and sketched on the paper with white crayons. You can see the white lines showing up through the watercolour sticks since the white wax lines resist the water medium. I liked this effect, and the second one down, I loved for its subtlety and spontaneity.

watercolour sticks and crayon 3

watercolour sticks and crayon 3

watercoloursticks and crayon 2

watercoloursticks and crayon 2

watercolour sticks and wax crayons1

watercolour sticks and wax crayons1

What I wanted to do was bring in that same kind of spontaneous, airy spaciousness into my oil painting. The painting of the beets, by comparison to where I want to go, is very dense and concentrated.I like that but I want to be able to choose that look, not to do it because I can’t do anything else.

I started with a 50x70cm canvas board and began with movements and gestures while listening to music, only having a faint idea of where I might want to go with it (the subject is that Beets revisited). I didn’t do a drawing, just squiggled on some shapes with a brush.
I love the feel of it, I used oils thinned down and let them run. There will be beets and leaves and thicker paint, but it will be very different from the first one. I have no idea where it will end up. This is ‘trusting the process’.

Start of New Beets

Start of New Beets

One more thought to add. What inhibits most professional artists from doing this kind of risky experimentation (it is scary) is the need to stick to the things that sell. I’ll probably be producing substandard work for several months at least while I experiment with this new approach. Another inhibiting factor is your idea of yourself as a ‘good’ artist. Changing your approach is going to produce cr*p for a while. Accept it. It is the only way to move forward and go deeper.

later: I did a little more work on it and decided to just leave it as it is. The qualities it already has are enough for me right now, they remind me of where I’m headed and I didn’t want to overwork it and obscure them. 

Why artists need to play

August 16, 2015

worktable- the good kind of creative chaos

worktable- the good kind of creative chaos

I’m revisiting Shaun McNiff’s excellent book, ‘Trust the process’, first read 5 years ago. The subtitle says it all, ‘The artist’s guide to letting go’. Last time I read it, I experienced his thoughts as a confirmation that art making is completely separate from business. The posts I wrote on it reflected that. But this time around I am gaining so much from his deep understanding of creative processes, writing as well as painting.

One eye-opener for me was his suggestion to see the creative process as involving all of you. Therefore, you can kick-start visual creativity by, for example, moving your body, and taking cues from those gestures to make marks. I did this today,  starting out by dancing to my favorite Andreas Vollenweider CD. I had some good quality smallish watercolour paper and the dancing led quite naturally, still moving, to making rhythmic strokes on the paper with watercolour crayons. Very quickly the paper and tools became too small to contain the gestures I was making, so I ended up on newspaper sized paper using large crayon blocks and  ecoline inks with big brushes. I liked the wax resist effect, but soon I was combining charcoal, watercolour sticks, crayons and ink.


McNiff says you need to draw on a different set of evaluation criteria to review this kind of work: look at it for spontaneity, freshnesss, rhythm, whimsy. Work in series, let one image lead you to the next, and look at the whole body of work for signs of certain gestures and forms that you might want to repeat or expand upon.

I think you could do this to blast through blocks in any medium. He suggests starting out with notecards and making series of drawings (poems, writing ideas, dialogues, dance moves) on those. But if you want to work big like I did, you can still move from one to the next fairly quickly. Don’t correct or critique while you are working, just keep going and enjoy the process.

I don’t know where what I did this morning will lead, and I don’t care. It brought me straight back to my creative roots that was very moving. There was a sadness there for how I usually hem in my creativity to fit certain ideas I have about being an artist. Working this way was freeing, and I will revisit it and see where the process leads me.

McNiff’s ‘Trust the process’, is highly recommended for aspiring artists and certainly for art veterans like me, who can always use ways to loosen up, but also practical suggestions for further developing their work.



Recent work

July 21, 2015

5 bottle still life, oils

5 bottle still life, oils

This might look familiar to some of you, I’ve been working on a series of Rende’s photos of bottles in front of some of my still life paintings. I did 2 versions of this one, and the second is still in progress. This one tries to be true to the photo which I loved because of the contrast between the rich darks and glowing oranges. I took it with very little light in my studio, so it is hand held and out of focus (see the signature) . The bottles are quite clean and sharp in the original painting. I was especially happy with the right edge of the bowl seen through the blue bottle.

And now for something entirely different. I fell in love yet again with another of Ivon Hitchens’ paintings.

Original September Bouquet, Ivon Hitchens

Original September Bouquet, Ivon Hitchens

So I spent some happy days copying it. My version is a bit livelier qua colour, I like them both. Also, my canvas was a different proportion so I had to fudge the layout a little.

Copy of HItchens September bouquet, oils

Copy of Hitchens September bouquet, oils

I just can’t imagine sitting in front of a vase, container (?) of flowers on a wood floor and producing something as gauzy and vague as this. It is a bouquet, yet there are hardly any greens except those nice two fresh strokes on the left.

What that shape is in the lower right corner, I have no idea. I can’t get inside this guys head in any way. If you see some of his other work, you’ll see that form isn’t the main thing with him. But I still love his nonchalance and in some of his other still lifes, the addition of scribbly outlines as well as decorative colour patches.

I’m getting up the nerve to do a painting of my own in his style; I’ve already done a preliminary watercolour study for it, but it is such an alien way of working for me. We’ll see.

Slow art, soul art

July 18, 2015

Art holds time, oil pastel collage, S Zoutewelle-Morris

Art holds time, oil pastel collage, S Zoutewelle-Morris

Who doesn’t have the ‘bread and butter’ part of their art practice? I sure did back in the 70’s when I made little landscape prints and calligraphy pieces to sell at art markets.

My husband told me of an artist who, a long time ago in Holland, was having trouble making ends meet. He set up a stand on the sidewalk and started making quick drawings of clowns for passersby. He did so well, he was able to finance his less saleable work.

Problem is when the clown drawings take over. When work made to sell becomes the focus, and not making work according to inner values, which then eventually may or may not sell.

Commodity art is a branch of business, like a supermarket or a clothing store. It operates on exactly the same principles- supply and demand, customer’s wishes are central, profit margins before quality. And virtually no ethical underpinning.

How does an artist let herself become part of this consumer chain? One current scenario is, the person has average or above average drawing talent and makes something which is trendy and appeals to a large public.

They have no trouble seeing their art as a product. For them, selling is just as exciting and challenging as making art. They are 100% dedicated to self-promotion.They are artists of business, rather than artists first. Mostly when they find something that sells, they keep working in that vein rather than taking risks and developing their art.

While they may start out making things that are connected to their own creative journey, they soon realise that to keep selling they have to make the kind of art their customers want. They’ve found that wholesale and licensing earn the most, and the fastest. Every piece of original art regardless of merit is unfailingly available as prints, phone skins, silk scarves, T-shirts, mouse pads etc..

Then they realize that they have now become administrators of a business, have to spend hours working the social media to keep up people’s interest in them and their products, and spend more hours (or hire someone) to package and post their work. They accept this and consider it the price needed to stay ‘on top’.

Eventually everything they do is in service to their career. As one artist put it, they have become walking infomercials.

Excuse me. But if an artist decides that this really isn’t what his heart was telling him when he first felt he gift of his art come through him, he’s the one that is supposed to be crazy???  I, and more than a few artist friends, when openly questioning this insanity have gotten flack for not being ‘realistic’ and realizing you have to have money to survive. But the core issues here aren’t just about money.

 continued in next post



Slow art, soul art II

July 18, 2015

please read part one, previous post first

So what is going on here?
There is a book called, ‘The Gift ‘by Lewis Hyde which exhaustively explores why art belongs to the gift and not the commercial worlds, and what is lost when we enter the market with a gift (I’ve written a series of posts on the book.) Basically, in gift cultures, to give something away freely was to enrich the tribe/community. A gift actually increased in value when given, and perished when held on to. Gifts and art were linked to something bigger than the artist- to the ancestors, to the spirits of the land, to the gods.
And in engaging in gift exchange, these large forces were also invoked. So that when you gave or received a gift, it connected you to the larger powers in the universe. Money exchange is anonymous and impersonal. But gift exchange in a small community creates a connection, a web of relationships. If I give something away freely, I create an empty place in my own life that will automatically be filled by the community.

Compare this trust that my needs will be met, with the desperation that so often accompanies selling art for a living in the above model.

The thing is, if you reject the pressure to commoditise your art and yourself, you are rejecting the main paradigm, the actual foundations of reality nearly everyone in this society is being run by. You are stepping off the path. You are dangerous. that is why when you start to withdraw from the accepted ‘way it is done’ people will feel threatened and try to make you feel like a fool.

What is actually happening is that one by one, people are starting to question the usual way of doing and thinking about things. Charles Eisenstein calls this familiar way the ‘old story’ and says we are collectively moving toward a ‘new narrative’. This is true for the arts as well. He also says that it is almost impossible to hold the new story alone. If you try, you will be drawn back into the old way of seeing things, either by peer pressure or money issues. The only way to create and hold the new story is through community – one more reason to talk about these things together and support each other in making unconventional choices.

There are many, many artists looking for new ways of working with their gifts. These channels are not yet in place as  secure money generating structures, but they are coming. Actually, it is artists like us who are questioning the current paradigm who are creating the new forms.

What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and making whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in ten seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.
-Robert Hughes

I would call this ‘soul art’. It has a lot to do with Hyde’s idea of art being a gift:

There are three aspects of a gift involved in creating a work of art:

  1. The inspiration, vision or idea that makes one want to create.
  2. The talent and skills to  bring that idea into tangible form. The artist creates something higher than herself and is
    enriched by doing so.
  3. The work of art is offered to something larger than the artist’s ego- the tribe, community, the muse ,whatever,
    there is an acknowledgement and gratitude and releasing of the art so that it can enrich others.

This kind of art takes time and belongs to other natural processes which are of value and take time; healing, nurturing, tending, growing, creating. It is made as a response to an inner intention and is deeply engaged with the artist’s growth and development both in his skills and as a person.

Soul art, when shared freely with the community, creates nourishing relationships. Coming from the heart, it is naturally sustainable and in harmony with nature. It is made from the sense that what we have is already enough, so there is trust that we’ll find what we need rather than trying to manipulate, control and compete for it.

Hyde, in his book, admitted that we live in a reality where an artist needs to sell to live. He offers one suggestion- make sure your art is created in service to your gifts, to the higher aspirations of your soul and heart- where you take risks, don’t think about the market, where there is a pure, gift sphere to create from. Then, after, you can see if it has market value, sometimes is does, sometimes it doesn’t.

The art that matters to us, which moves the heart or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living…that work is received by us as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price.
Lewis Hyde, The Gift


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