*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
One of the main differences between the young girl who drew a line in chalk from the Metropolitan Museum all the way to her home on Park Avenue and the young woman who drew lines on canvas and paper twenty years later was that the latter understood the willfulness that drove the child. She was facing “the monster,” the consuming need to create, which was beyond her control but no longer beyond her comprehension. Helen [Frankenthaler] had long understood that her gift set her apart, and that it would be nearly impossible to describe how and why without sounding arrogant or cruel. “It’s saying I’m different, I’m special, consider me differently,” she explained years later. “And it’s also on the other side, a recognition that one is lonely, that one is not run of the mill, that the values are different, and yet we all go into the same supermarkets… and we all are moved one way or the other by children and seasons, and dreams. So the art separates you.”
The separation she described was not merely the result of what one did, whether it be painting or sculpting or writing poetry. Helen said the distance between an artist and society was due to a quality both tangible and intangible and intrinsic, a “spiritual” or “magical” aspect that nonartists did not always understand and were sometimes frightened by. “They want you to behave a certain way. They want you to explain what you do and why you do it. Or they want you removed, either put on a pedestal or victimized. They can’t handle it.” Helen concluded that existing outside so-called normal life was simply the price an artist paid to create.
A: In the mid-1980s I was a thirty-three-year-old Navy lieutenant, working a soul-crushing job as a computer analyst on the midnight shift in a Pentagon basement. We were open 24/7 and supported the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Remembering the joyful Saturdays of my youth in New Jersey when I had studied with a local painter, I enrolled in a drawing class at the Art League School in Alexandria, Virginia. I loved it! I took more classes and became a highly motivated, full-time art student who worked nights at the Pentagon. After two years and as my skills improved, I discovered my preferred medium – soft pastel on sandpaper.
I knew I had found my calling, submitted my resignation, and left the active duty Navy. On October 1, 1989 I became a professional artist. However, I remained in the Navy Reserve for another fourteen years, working at the Pentagon one weekend a month. On November 1, 2003, I retired as a Navy Commander.
A: I don’t believe I have any such ‘early memories.’ I came to art late and my journey to becoming an artist was circuitous, to say the least.
In the mid-1980s I was a thirty-something Navy lieutenant. I worked a soul-crushing job as a computer analyst on the midnight shift in a Pentagon basement. We were open 24/7 and supported the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Remembering the joyful Saturdays of my youth in New Jersey, when I had studied with a local painter, I enrolled in a drawing class at the Art League School in Alexandria, Virginia. I loved it! I took more classes and became a highly motivated, full-time art student who worked nights at the Pentagon. After two years and as my skills improved, I discovered my preferred medium – soft pastel on sandpaper.
I knew I had found my calling, submitted my resignation, and left active duty. On October 1, 1989 I became a professional artist. However, I remained in the Navy Reserve for another fourteen years, working at the Pentagon one weekend a month. On November 1, 2003, I retired as a Navy Commander.
A: In Oaxaca I bought a large carved wooden dragon mask with a Conquistador’s face carved and painted on its back. My intent was to depict the dragon in a subsequent “Domestic Threats” painting (the series I was working on at the time). The dragon still hangs in my living room in Alexandria, VA.
This first trip in 1992 was a revelation and marked the start of my on-going love of Mexico: its people, landscapes, ancient cultures, archaeology, history, art, cuisine, etc. There would be many subsequent trips to Mexico to learn as much as I can about this endlessly interesting cradle of civilization.
A: From studying with Lisa and Diane I gained an excellent technical foundation and developed my ability to draw and depict just about anything in soft pastel. They were both extremely effective teachers and I worked hard in their classes. I probably got my work ethic from them. Without Diane and Lisa I doubt I would have gained the necessary skills nor the confidence to move to New York to pursue my art career.
Needless to say, I believe developing excellent technical skills is paramount. Artists can, and should, go ahead and break the rules later, but they won’t be able to make strong work, expressing what they want, without a firm foundation. Once you have the skills, you can focus on the things that really make your work come alive and speak to an appreciative audience.
Comments Off on Q: You took classes at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA in the late eighties studying intensely with Lisa Semerad and Diane Tesler. How have these experiences impacted on the way you currently produce your artworks? By the way, I sometimes wonder if a certain kind of formal training in artistic disciplines could even stifle a young artist’s creativity. What do you think?
A: At the age of 33 I was a Lieutenant in the Navy, working as computer analyst at the Pentagon. I was very unhappy with my job. I began looking for something else to do and discovered The Art League School in Alexandria, VA. I enrolled in classes with Lisa Semerad, then spent the next two years developing my drawing skills using black and white media (charcoal, pencils, conte crayon, etc.).
After that I moved on to color media and began studying soft pastel with Diane Tesler. During this time I was still in the Navy, working the midnight shift at the Pentagon and taking art classes during the day. I was a very motivated student.
After three years or so I was getting quite proficient as an artist, entering local juried shows, winning prizes, garnering press coverage, etc. Prior to my career change, I worked hard to develop my portrait skills. I really didn’t know how I could make a living other than by making commissioned portraits. I volunteered to run a weekly life drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA, where I made hundreds of figure drawings using charcoal.
I spent a semester commuting between Washington, DC and New York to study artistic anatomy at the New York Academy of Art. I spent another semester studying gross anatomy with medical students at Georgetown University Medical School. Over time I became skilled at making photo-realistic portraits. In 1989 I resigned from the Navy and have worked full-time as a visual artist ever since.
A: Like everything else associated with my studio practice, my use of photographs from which to work has changed considerably. Beginning in the early 1990s all of the paintings in my first series, “Domestic Threats,” started out as elaborately staged, well-lit scenes that either my husband, Bryan, or I photographed with Bryan’s Toyo Omega 4 x 5 view camera using a wide-angle lens. Depending on where I was living at the time, I set up the scenes in one of three places: our house in Alexandria, VA, a six-floor walkup apartment on West 13th Street in New York, or my current Bank Street condominium. Then one of us shot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I’d usually select the more detailed one to be made into a 20″ x 24″ photo to use as a reference.
Just as the imagery in my paintings has simplified and emptied out over the years, my creative process has simplified, too. I often wonder if this is a natural progression that happens as an artist gets older. More recently I have been shooting photos independently of how exactly I will use them in my work. Only later do I decide which ones to make into paintings; sometimes it’s YEARS later. For example, the pastel painting that is on my easel now is based on a relatively old (2002) photograph that I have always liked, but only now felt ready to tackle in pastel.
* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
Once a work is completed, I have to wait before undertaking another. The completed work does not release me quickly. It moves its chattels slowly. The wise thing then is a change of air and of room. The new material comes to me on my walks. Whatever happens I mustn’t notice it. If I interfere, it doesn’t come any more. One fine day the work demands my help. I give myself up to it in one fell swoop. My pauses are its own. If it falls asleep my pen skids. As soon as it wakes, it gives me a shake. It couldn’t care less if I am asleep. Get up, it says, so that I can dictate. And it is not easy to follow. Its vocabulary is not of words.
A: The reproductions above are two of my earliest. The portrait of Bryan (see last week’s post) is hanging at the school that was named for him, Dr. Bryan C. Jack Elementary School, in Tyler, Texas. Krystyn’s portrait is hanging in my dining room in Alexandria, VA – I liked it too much to part with it. I have no idea where the one of John is now.
Note that the actual paintings are more vibrant than the 8 x 10’s shown above. For example, the background of John’s painting is a brilliant green. To obtain the images above I re-photographed photos from my portfolio book. These photos, unlike the originals, have faded over the years. That’s one more reason that my originals need to be seen in person.
“Bryan,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 22″ x 28″, 1988
A: In 1989 I was a Naval officer working at the Pentagon and I hated my job as a computer analyst. Although it was terrifying to leave the security of a paycheck for the uncertainty of an artist’s existence, I made the leap. In retrospect it was one of the best decisions of my life. When I resigned from active duty (I remained in the Navy Reserve, which provided a part-time job and a small income; in 2003 I retired as a Navy Commander), I needed a way to make a living.
Prior to this career change, I worked hard to develop my portrait skills. I volunteered to run a life drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA, where I made hundreds of figure drawings using charcoal and pastel. I spent a semester commuting between Washington, DC and New York to study artistic anatomy at the New York Academy of Art. I spent another semester studying gross anatomy with medical students at Georgetown University Medical School. So I was well prepared to devote myself to making portraits.
For a time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper. However, after about two years I became bored. I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!” Furthermore, I had no interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted. I completed my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back. To this day I remain loathe to do a commission of any kind.