organising thoughts on bulletin board

organising thoughts on bulletin board

Thanks to Cat Lupton for inviting me to take part in a writing process blog tour.  Different bloggers talk about how and why they write, and it is a kind of online relay. The idea is to create a continuous chain of writers.
Unfortunately, the people I asked couldn’t participate, so one of the forward branches ends here, well not entirely. This is a bit late, but Laura Burns is carrying the baton from here. I came across Laura’s work some time ago and knew immediately that this kind of artist is breaking ground for an entirely new kind of engaged art. She is a writer and performer interested in responding to environmental crisis. Her work spans performance storytelling, poetry, movement practices and visual arts. She is interested in the intersections of orality and text, movement and writing and mythology as ecology; she is currently looking at the ways in which re-connecting to our bodies might affect re-connecting to the earth around us.  Her post will be up at her blog on April 7th.
You can also follow some links backward and pick up a new branch forward.
Try these: Emily Wilkinson , and Jeppe Graugaard.
Or sideways*.

We’re following a model of answering 4 questions concerning our writing process, here goes:

1 What am I working on?

Aside from regular blogging, and the occasional guest blog, there is no active writing project on the table at the moment.

For the past 10 years I’ve had a book in the works about the emergence of new art forms in times of transition.  I keep hitting unsolvable problems so have shelved it for now.

2 How does my work differ from  others of its genre?

Since I’m a visual artist who also writes, my primary focus is art and it is hard for me to judge how my work does or doesn’t stand out from other non fiction writing. I’d like to think that my unique mix of life experiences and the issues I care most about combine to create an individual voice.

3 Why do I write what I do?

Usually  there is some kind of urgency when I sit down to write- there is  question or issue up for me that I want to get clarity on. Or I write to digest new material that has come to me through someone else’s writing.

I also write to  share my inner thoughts in the hopes they may help someone else gain insight on similar dilemmas.

4 How does my writing process work?

A lot of my writing is easy, I just, ‘stare at the page until little drops of blood form on my forehead’.

No, seriously, I seem to have two modes of writing-   Flow, and Struggle.

My book, ‘Chocolate rain, 100 ideas for a creative approach to activities in dementia care’ was written in a continuous flow over 18 months. First thing in the morning, I simply sat down to write for an hour or more, and the book emerged with very little revision.  However, I have to add that this productive period was preceded by attempts spanning 5 years, to try to find the right tone. But as soon as I found the balance between ‘too academic’ and ‘too personal’, the book just about wrote itself.

The good kind of struggle is part of every creative process. You hit a wall, get pushed beyond your comfort zone, solve it, and come out the other side with  a sense of achievement.

But there is also negative struggle. In recent attempts to progress with my book on the arts, I’ve become intimately acquainted with this type of internal battle. No matter how much discipline, optimism, or hard work you throw at the page, you stay stuck. It is like quicksand.

I’ve been learning to discern between the constructive and the negative kinds of struggle, and to disengage from the latter.
I understand now that writing can’t be forced, and things will fall in place when they are ready to. I’ve realised that despite the willingness to turn up at the page,( surrounded by copious research notes and outlines), if I haven’t connected with the soul of the book or its reason for being written, nothing I can do can make it progress.

Occasionally an idea comes to us that is so far outside our current frame of reference,  we have to fundamentally change before that idea can take shape through us. So I’m experiencing that the writing process can be a sort of alchemy that transforms the creator as well as the material she is giving form to.

* (And if  you are interested, I just ran across a past post of mine, ‘Why posting every day might not always be such a good idea’, inspired by Jonathan Harris, which addresses some issues related to blogging, story, creative process,  and living our lives publicly on the internet).



Sunday morning by Samuel Rosenberg  (source)

My parents were good friends with the respected American artist, Samuel Rosenberg and his wife Libby. When I was still a child, they asked him advice on how to encourage my love for drawing and he suggested that when I was old enough they should send me for lessons with Pittsburgh artist, Abe Weiner.

I’ve mentioned my dear teacher and mentor here in previous posts, but I’ve been wanting to write in depth about that relationship. Before I even had a blog, I’d written an essay on what those years meant to me, but it has been lost. So I will try to recreate that tribute to him here.

My father was a doctor and both my parents were anxious to move out of the little duplex in the crowded Jewish neighbourhood they had come to as immigrants from Ireland, into the more spacious suburbs. I’d grown up in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh from age 3-9, and was used to walking everywhere with my mom to do errands on Murray avenue or Forbes.

That intimate relationship with the city stopped when we moved to Churchill and everything was done by car. Our shopping focus shifted from the city to the malls and we became suburbanites. I only went into town via carpool to go to temple, and later to go to my lessons with Abe.

But those lessons were what reconnected me to my city in a way growing up in my affluent family never could.

Abe Weiner was a quiet, humble man. He must have been in his early 40s when I came to him as a 10 year old. I only every remember gentleness from him, and humour, and the most all encompassing belief in me as an artist with ability.

Every Saturday for 6 years, except for summer vacation, I went by bus from Temple to the Weiner’s home in Squirrel Hill. In the first years we drew in and around their home. Abe and Anne’s 3 children were often present in the house, sometimes sitting down to draw with us. Friends would drop by, and since Abe’s studio was on the ground floor between the living room and kitchen, we were always at the heart of whatever was happening in the house.

After a few lessons when my teacher got an idea of what my stage of development was, we started to venture farther afield. Pittsburgh’s rich cultural heritage opened for this child, as Abe took me and often Shari his eldest girl, to draw at Phipp’s conservatory or the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. First I drew Greek statues in charcoal and pencil, when I could handle values well we graduated to my first box of pastels. I remember opening it for the first time, and all the colours took my breath away.

Abe’s method of teaching art was……

continued in part 2   (scroll down)


Untitled, Abe Weiner,  acrylic and dry pigments

Abe Weiner’s method of teaching art was to present the student with a subject to draw which would be familiar enough to provide security at the beginning, but complex enough to challenge them to go beyond their current level of ability.

It was a classic way of teaching,- perspective, chiaroscuro, proportion, composition were all handled. And when we worked with colour, complements, colour wheel, colour theory all were addressed. But none of this was presented as theory. It all came up naturally during the course of drawing; when I’d hit on a problem I couldn’t solve, only then would a piece of information be offered which I could use right away to go to the next level.

The lessons went like this- I’d arrive and we’d gather some materials and in the later years,almost always go directly out in the car with one of more of his kids (Shari the eldest- just a bit younger than I, Jonathan, and Kim, the youngest) . We’d arrive at the museum (admission was free in those days), and seek out a subject to draw. I remember spending several consecutive lessons on one dinosaur skull. When I revisited the museum 30 years later, I went right to this particular skull out of dozens displayed, because I’d come to know it so intimately.

What did he do during the lessons? He’d talk, make jokes, he was totally present without ever interfering or steering too obviously. He might give a few pointers while I was doing the first sketch if I was going horribly wrong with the composition or had missed an important element. But he usually simply held the space unobtrusively and was there when I got myself into a pickle, to help with kind suggestions as to how to dig myself out. He guided quietly, he observed, he didn’t praise or cut down, he was with you during the process and his total trust in your own abilities was palpable. If I was pleased with the result, so was he. And he also knew how to navigate my increasingly stormy teenage moods when things went wrong.

I learned through doing, through being supported in a safe space where the ante was upped a little more every time I made a step in my own development. So that learning to draw with Abe and paint with pastels was a slow, gentle curve to increasing skill and confidence.

My family life in those teenage years was chaotic. My father was bi polar and had a personality disorder; he’d been institutionalised a few times, but no one outside the family ever knew about that.  And I only knew he’d been ‘ill’ and had to ‘go away’ for a few months. When he was home my mother and I were at the mercy of his manic moods and depressions and rages.  That is why for 6 years, my weekly 3 hours in Abe’s home and even-keeled presence helped me through that turbulent childhood, and is why I am probably less scarred by it all than I might have been had I not had that refuge.

And I learned to draw, really draw. And to see, which is the heart of being able to draw.

On the days when we stayed at their home, Abe would occasionally work on one of his paintings while I was drawing. Looking back I see how much effect seeing his art unfold colour by colour, had on my own artistic vision. That merits another post.

My dear friend and mentor died in 1993. Luckily, I’d had the gift of another series of lessons from him after I was married and gone to live in Holland. I came back to Pittsburgh for several months and revisited his home with lovely Anne still there as well, and I learned to paint.

This man was a key person in my life, he not only grew me as an artist and influenced my vision and work, but his generosity and his family’s provided a haven for a sensitive child surrounded by the emotional turmoil of her own dysfunctional home.

And together we went and drew the still mills from the Hill. We went dahntahn and drew skyscrapers, we went to East Liberty, to Schenley park and drew the cherry trees in blossom, we lost ourselves in the tropical green houses of Phipp’s conservatory, we drew  animals at Frick Natural History museum. Through Abe’s eyes, I learned Pittsburgh in a way my parents never saw it,from their dinners at the Park Schenley or Concordia club, or dos at Montefiore where my father practiced.

It is Abe’s and my Pittsburgh I carry in my heart, and in my art.

Colour beyond vision

March 14, 2014

Purple apple

Purple apple,   oil on canvas board

This is the painting started in February. It features a beautiful CD cupboard Rende made. Plus, to the left,  the arm of a couch he made for us a long time ago.

The challenge for me in this painting was to keep the spirit of the first inspiration. There are some unresolved areas in it still, but in all the painters I admire, this is true. If you try to get everything too ‘finished’, or ‘right’, the life goes right out of it. It is a balance of honouring the first moment of vision, and working on it to enhance that rather than take it over with what the mind thinks it should be. That is why there is a magical element in creating. It is a letting go so that something unexpected and uncontrolled may enter, just as much as a skilful manipulation of technique.

No way was I going to lose that cocky little purple apple. The other fruits gained more conventional colouring, but I left this as a reminder of the worlds of colour just beyond vision. And that a painting can be anything you want it to be.

Here are the first stages of this painting:

One nice thing I did when I was in England last month was to meet up with a fellow blogger I had previously only met virtually. Sonia found my blog through our common work of painting harpsichords. I paint sound boards and she decorates the cases- two entirely different specialities. Sonia’s skills involve hard physical work sanding and finishing large areas, as well as gold-leafing and faux finishes. Mine entails designing and painting flowers.

Anyway, we became online friends and have followed each other’s projects for awhile. I was really impressed when Sonia conceived of, wrote, and self-published her travel, photo, and cookbook, ‘Androula’s Kitchen, Cyprus on a plate’.   And when we met in Brighton, she told me of the doors this has opened for her to new opportunities such as lecturing and cooking demonstrations.
Neither of us are out for the fast bucks, and subsequently are discovering the hidden treasures that come from doing something well because you love it. Then gifts come pouring in-  experiences that lead to making new friends, developing new abilities, and building community. It is inspiring to share stories.

Below are a few more general shots from the London part of the trip.



Above a detail from one of my most heart-lifting sights in London, the meters high horse head sculpture at Marble Arch. The first time I saw him while passing by on a bus, he took my breath away. And this time I made a point of getting up close.

Horse head

Horse head

One of the snazzy new double deckers:

new double decker

Another horse’s head sculpture I stumbled across near Oxford St.

Bronze head

Bronze head

One of the other things that made me smile every time I saw it was the placing of public pianos in various locations inside St Pancras International railway station. They were there for anyone to play, and there was always someone noodling away- sometimes shyly, sometimes performing, sometimes good , often haltingly searching out the notes. I loved the idea. There is always live music now when you walk along the busy indoor shopping boulevard, it makes it warm and homey instead of impersonal like an airport lounge.

playing piano at St Pancras

playing piano at St Pancras

And finally, here is the outside of St Pancras on my last day in the UK, the sun finally came out! I adore this building, it is the old Euston station, and part is now a posh hotel. I always like looking out on the warm red bricks from the hostel, which is the  building on the right hand side of the photo. Across the street, not shown is the British Library.  Despite the heavy traffic on Euston Road, I love this area, it is busy and vibrant and a great mix of architecture and things to see.

St Pancras station and Hotel

St Pancras station and Hotel
on the walk to Lewes

on the walk to Lewes

During my recent trip to England, this was the usual weather. And these muted greens and earth colours were the palette in the South Downs area.

There was some relief from that the day I went to Brighton to meet Sonia. I’ll write about our pleasurable meeting later, you can see Sonia’s account of it here.

I’d thought Brighton was a charming, small white-housed seaside resort- so I was kind of surprised at my first glimpse of it through the train window!

Brighton from train

And after Sonia and I had a light snack at the museum, and I headed out to the ocean, I got away as fast as possible from this scene.

brighton boardwalk
So I guess it isn’t surprising, considering the dull pre-spring greens I’d been seeing up until then,  that when I finally got to the beach, my eye was pulled to stronger colours. I had a brilliant time scavenging for bits of washed up plastic. Though it was devastating to see evidence of how plastics end up in the ocean food chain, I decided to see them also as colours and forms. Below is the first collection.

Collected within a circle about 2 meters from where I was sitting.

Collected within a circle about 2 meters from where I was sitting.

After that I set about collecting (via photos) plastic objects, one for each colour of the rainbow.

I spent 5 days in London during the worst weather one could imagine.  There was massive flooding in Southwest England, there were rain and gale force winds in the city.  I traded the parks for the galleries and tried to make the best of it.

The undisturbed time spent with the Impressionists, but most of all the Cézannes, must have shifted some things for me, because I came home with new inspiration. What I learned most from spending time in their presence, sometimes almost  putting my nose practically on the surfaces of his canvases, and sometimes looking from further away, was that there are no tricks or formulas or secrets to good painting. Rilke, in his ‘Letters on Cézanne’, speaks about the straightforward purity of Cézanne’s search, and of the absence of any interfering concepts, ego, or ideology laid on top of the work. It simply is.

Today I went to see his pictures again: it’s remarkable what an environment they create. Without looking at a particular one, standing in the middle between the two rooms one feels their presence drawing together in a colossal reality. As if these colours could heal one of indecision once and for all. The good conscience of these reds, these blues,, their simple truthfulness, it educates you;and if you stand beneath them as acceptingly as possible,, it’s as if they were doing something for you….

It is as if the integrity of his struggle with his work releases one to be oneself. I looked at some of the strokes in his still lifes, and they are simply done- to cover the area, to get a tone in, nothing is polished up, made pretty, smoothed over in any way. He attends more meticulously to some of the fabrics and surfaces, but what one gets from the original work is that it is above all, painted. And the mark- making, rhythms, and choices are completely idiosyncratic to this one individual. Which once again gives a clue to how to paint- paint like yourself, warts and all. Don’t think too much.

The still life I’m working on now is informed by all these insights and experiences. It is from the same series as the previous one below, but has entered a new realm.


Instead of doing the acrylic underpainting in one solid colour, I followed my former mentor’s advice and loosely painted all the areas in their complementary hues. While I was doing that I let that brief go as well, and started to just use colours  I liked. Then I made a radical departure from my other realistic work, and decided to keep true to my own, rather than the ‘correct’ colours. I am still working with balances of light and dark and cool and warm, but there is suddenly much more room for me.