Category Archives: An Artist’s Life

Pearls from artists* # 305

About half of Barbara’s pastels

About half of Barbara’s pastels

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

When asked to talk about what I do, I’ve often compared writing with handicrafts – weaving, pot-making, woodworking.  I see my fascination with the word as very like, say, the fascination with wood common to carvers, cabinetmakers – people who find a fine piece of old chestnut with delight, and study it, and learn the grain of it, and handle it with sensuous pleasure, and consider what’s been done with chestnut and what you can do with it, loving the wood itself, the mere material, the stuff of their craft.             

Ursula K. Le Guin in No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters

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Travel photo of the month*

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“The Three Wise Men,” Jimoh Buraimoh, Glass beads, plastic cylinders, cotton, epoxy, plywood, 1991

* Favorite travel and other photographs that have not yet appeared in this blog.

A:  I saw this painting at the Baltimore Museum of Art and was intrigued by the intracacy and textures of the beads, cylinders, and other items used by Jimoh Buraimoh, a Nigerian modernist.  The figures are his portrayal of the three men who traveled to England in 1960 to negotiate Nigeria’s independence.  Buraimoh honors the nation’s founders with materials that glorify Yoruba heritage and artistic traditions.  His title also associates the men with the three wise men of the Bible.  I enjoy this work very much and couldn’t help being reminded of imagery by Picasso.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 304

"Palaver,"soft pastel on sandpaper, 26" x 20"

“Palaver,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26″ x 20″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

… my job as a fiction writer is to write fiction, not to review it.  Art isn’t explanation.  Art is what an artist does, not what an artist explains.  (Or so it seems to me,  which is why I have  a problem with the kind of modern museum art that involves reading what the artist says about a work in order to find out why one should look at it or “how to experience” it).     

Ursula K. Le Guin in No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters

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Pearls from artists* # 303

Barbara's Studio

Barbara’s Studio

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

If the majority of aesthetic works fail to astonish us, then. it may have something to do with the ingrained insensitivity that is part and parcel of contemporary life.  It may also have something to do with the fact that art, as Solzhenitsyn said so eloquently, is constantly being put to uses that are at odds with its essence.  Indeed, the moment a work of art appears, all kinds of other factors come into play.  Cultural institutions, social pressures, laws, customs, fashions, and trends pull it in every direction.  Fame, money, conformism, attention-seeking, and knee-jerk rebellion can lure artists to abandon their own vision in order to emulate those of others, to adhere to formulas and paint by numbers, or to value external convention over vision.  The inevitable result is a lot of bad art that couldn’t astonish anyone.  It should come as no surprise, when looking over the glut of aesthetic objects that proliferate around us, if we feel the need to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic art – which is to say, art that astonishes us by attuning us to the radical mystery of being, and art that attempts to reinforce our shared illusions, comforting or intimidating us with the notion that there is nothing to wonder at since everything has been figured out.        

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

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Q: What is more important to you, the subject of the painting or the way it is executed?

"Sam and Bobo,"soft pastel on sandpaper, 36" x 31", 1989

“Sam and Bobo,”soft pastel on sandpaper, 36″ x 31”, 1989

A:  In a sense my subject matter – folk art, masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, toys – chose me.  With it I have complete freedom to experiment with color, pattern, design, and other formal properties.  In other words, although I am a representational artist, I can do whatever I want since the depicted objects need not look like real things.  Execution is everything now.

This was not always the case.  I started out in the 1980s as a traditional photorealist, except I worked in pastel on sandpaper.  (For example, see the detail in Sam’s sweater above).  As I slowly learned and mastered my craft, depicting three-dimensional people and objects hyper-realistically in two dimensions on a piece of sandpaper was thrilling… until one day it wasn’t.  

My personal brand of photorealism became too easy, too limiting, too repetitive, and SO boring to execute!  In 1989 I had at last extricated myself from a dull career as a Naval officer working in Virginia at the Pentagon.  Then after much planning, in 1997 I was a full-time professional artist working in New York.  

Certainly I was not going to throw away this opportunity by making boring photorealist art.  I wanted to do so much more as an artist:  to experiment with techniques, with composition, to see what I could make pastel do, to let my imagination play a larger role in the paintings I made. I was ready to devote the time and do whatever it took to push my art further.

After spending the early creative years perfecting my technical skills, I built on what I had learned.  I began breaking rules – slowly at first – in order to push myself onward.  And I continue to do so, never knowing what’s next.  Hopefully, in 2018 my art is richer for it.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 302

"Epiphany," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Epiphany,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Regardless of personal convictions or professional concerns, an artist’s power comes down to two things:  her sensitivity to the radical mystery of existence, and the artistry and craft with which she can channel that mystery into an object or performance.  Neither existential awe nor a given metaphysical outlook need to serve as an explicit motivation.  Simply, the emergence of artistic vision – and the need to express the vision without distorting or conceptualizing it – is contingent upon the underlying wonderment at being itself, a wonderment without which there would be no art.  

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

Comments are welcome!

Q: Having worked as an artist for more than three decades, you and your work finally are becoming well known. Do you ever receive fan letters?

Letter from a fan

Letter from a fan

A:  Yes, I do hear from fans.  Recently I received the hand-written letter pictured above.  It’s from a well-read inmate in a Virginia prison.  I chuckled when I read it because Glen was taken with an old pastel painting of mine called, “He Lost His Chance to Flee”!  

It’s a lovely letter.  I’m touched to know that my work is inspiring people to think about and make art!

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 300

"Offering," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Offering,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Art breaks down the barriers that normally stand between the physical and the psychic, between your soul and the souls of others.  “Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscapes would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist on the moon.”  For the French novelist Marcel Proust, who wrote those words, art is a meeting place in which human beings commune at a level that ordinary language and sign systems do not allow.  Without art, connection at this deeper level is impossible.       

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 299

"The Storyteller," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“The Storyteller,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

The artist is always and for all time a seer, and artistic creation is always and for all time an act of prophecy.

The artist does not choose the prophecy.  Rather, the prophetic shines through her work.  It comes from elsewhere.

The artist therefore needs enough courage to stay true to the work at hand.  Even greater courage is required of those to whom the finshed work is given, for their interests will always recommend dismissing the vision for fear of its implications.  

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 298

Untitled c-print, 24" x 24" edition of 5

Untitled c-print, 24″ x 24″ edition of 5

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Interviewer:  What do you think about the artist being supported by the state?

Parker:  Naturally, when penniless, I think it’s superb.  I think that the art of the country so immeasurably adds to its prestige that if you want to have writers and artists – persons who live precariously in our country – the state must help.  I do not think that any kind of artist thrives under charity, by which I mean one person or organization giving him money, here and there, this and that – that’s no good.  The difference between the state giving and the individual patron is that one is charity and one isn’t.  Charity is murder and you know it.  But I do think that if the government supports its artists, they need have no feeling of gratitude – the meanest and most sniveling attribute in the world – or baskets being brought to them, or apple polishing.  Working for the state, for Christ’s sake, are you grateful to your employers?  Let the state see what its artists are trying to do – like France and the Academie Francaise.  The artists are a part of their country and their country should recognize this, so both it and the artists can take pride in their efforts.  Now I mean that, my dear.      

Dorothy Parker in Women at Work:  Interviews From the Paris Review

Comments are welcome!