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Pearls from artists* # 520

“Keeper of the Secret,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38″ image, 60″ x 50″ framed

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

Ondaatje: Do you think success and failure can distort the lessons an artist is able to learn?

Murch: There’s that wonderful line of Rilke’s, “The point of life is to fail at greater and greater things.” Recognizing that all of our achievements are doomed, in one sense – the earth will be consumed by the sun in a billion years or so – but in another sense the purpose of our journey is to go farther each time. So you’re trying things out in every film you make, with the potential of failure. I think we’re always failing, in Rilke’s sense – we know there’s more potential that we haven’t realized. But because we’re trying, we develop more and more talent, or muscles, or strategies to improve, each time.

In The Conversation: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

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Pearls from artists* # 518

Barbara with a work in progress

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

“It’s more than beauty that I feel in music – that I think musicians feel in music. What we know we feel we’d like to convey to the listener. We hope that this can be shared by all. I think, basically, that’s what it is we are trying to do. We never talked about just what we were trying to do. If you ask me that question, I might say this today and tomorrow say something entirely different, because there are many things to do in music.

“But, overall, I think the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe. That’s what music is to me – it’s just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is. That’s what I would like to do. I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life, and we all try to do it in some way. The musician’s is through his music.”

John Coltrane in Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews

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Q: What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this? (Question from artamour)  

Source material for “The Champ”
Source material for “The Champ” (my first “Bolivianos” pastel painting) and “Avenger”

A: While traveling in Bolivia in 2017, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz.  The masks were presented against black walls, spot-lit, and looked eerily like 3D versions of my Black Paintings, the series I was working on at the time.  I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift.  To date I have completed seventeen pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series.  One awaits finishing touches, another is in progress, and I am planning the next two, one large and one small pastel painting.

The following text is from my “Bolivianos” artist’s statement.

My long-standing fascination with traditional masks took a leap forward in the spring of 2017 when I visited the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia.  One particular exhibition on view, with more than fifty festival masks, was completely spell-binding.

The masks were old and had been crafted in Oruro, a former tin-mining center about 140 miles south of La Paz on the cold Altiplano (elevation 12,000’).  Depicting important figures from Bolivian folklore traditions, the masks were created for use in Carnival celebrations that happen each year in late February or early March. 

Carnival in Oruro revolves around three great dances.  The dance of “The Incas” records the conquest and death of Atahualpa, the Inca emperor when the Spanish arrived in 1532.  “The Morenada” dance was once assumed to represent black slaves who worked in the mines, but the truth is more complicated (and uncertain) since only mitayo Indians were permitted to do this work.  The dance of “The Diablada” depicts Saint Michael fighting against Lucifer and the seven deadly sins.  The latter were originally disguised in seven different masks derived from medieval Christian symbols and mostly devoid of pre-Columbian elements (except for totemic animals that became attached to Christianity after the Conquest).  Typically, in these dances the cock represents Pride, the dog Envy, the pig Greed, the female devil Lust, etc.

The exhibition in La Paz was stunning and dramatic.  Each mask was meticulously installed against a dark black wall and strategically spotlighted so that it became alive.  The whole effect was uncanny.  The masks looked like 3D versions of my “Black Paintings,” a pastel paintings series I have been creating for ten years.  This experience was a gift… I could hardly believe my good fortune!

Knowing I was looking at the birth of a new series – I said as much to my companions as I  remained behind while they explored other parts of the museum – I spent considerable time composing photographs.  Consequently, I have enough reference material to create new pastel paintings in the studio for several years. The series, entitled “Bolivianos,” is arguably my strongest and most striking work to date.

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Pearls from artists* # 485

New York City

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

[Michael] Ondaatje: It’s an odd thing: I’ve heard you talk about the importance of ambiguity in film, and the need to save that ambiguous quality which exists in a book or painting, and which you think a film does not often have. And at the same time in a mix you are trying to “perfect” that ambiguity.

[Walter] Murch: I know. It’s a paradox. And one of the most fruitful paradoxes, I think, is that even when the film is finished, there should be unsolved problems. Because there’s another stage, beyond the finished film: when the audience views it. You want the audience to be co-conspirators in the creation of this work, just as much as the editor or the mixers or the cameraman or actors are. If by some chemistry you actually did remove all ambiguity in the final mix – even though it had been ambiguous up to that point – I think you would do the film a disservice. But the paradox is that you have to approach every problem as if it’s desperately important to solve it. You can’t say, I don’t want to solve this because it’s got to be ambiguous. If you do that, then there’s a sort of hemorrhaging of the organism.

O: And more of a confusion.

M: Yes. I keep thinking about it, and it’s a wonderful dilemma: you have to acknowledge that there must be unsolved problems at each stage. As hard as you work, you must have this secret, unspoken hope that one very significant problem will remain unsolved. But you never know what that will be until the film is done. You can almost define a film by the problem it poses, that it can’t answer itself, that it asks the audience to solve.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

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Pearls from artists* # 484

Behind the scenes of our documentary. Photo: David De Hannay

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

[Walter] Murch: We hope we become better editors with experience! Yet you have to have an intuition about the craft to begin with: for me, it begins with, Where is the audience looking? What are they thinking? As much as possible, you try to be the audience. At the point of transition from one shot to another, you have to be pretty sure where the audience’s eye is looking, where the focus of attention is. That will either make the cut work or not.

[Michael] Ondaatje: So before you make the cut, if you feel the audience is looking towards point X, then you cut to another angle where the focus of attention is somewhere around that point X.

The Conversation: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

This passage in Ondaatje’s book resonates because I work similarly to refine and construct each pastel painting. My goal is to move the viewer’s eye around in an engaging and interesting way. This part of my process is subtle so I suspect that most of my audience neither appreciates nor even suspects that I have done it.

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Pearls from artists* # 472

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.

A remark by Kurt Anderson suggests how the Internet discourages patient gazing: “Waiting a while to get everything you want… was a definition of maturity. Demanding satisfaction right this instant, on the other hand, is a defining behavior of seven-year-olds. The powerful appeal of the Web is not just the ‘community’ it enables but its instantane-ity… as a result… delayed gratification itself came to seem quaint and unnecessary.” A survey commissioned by the Visitor Studies Association reveals the impact of impatience. On average, the survey found, Americans spend between six and ten seconds looking at individual works in museums. (Is it just a coincidence that six to ten seconds is also the average time browsers perch on any given Web page?) Yet how many hours a day do we spend absorbed by one or another electronic screen? For the Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha (born 1937) brief encounters won’t suffice. When somebody asked, “How can you tell good art from bad?” Ruscha replied, “With a bad work you immediately say, ‘Wow!’ But afterwards, you think, ‘Hum? Maybe not.’ With a good work, the opposite happens.” Time is lodged at the heart of Ruscha’s formula, as the artwork becomes part of our temporal experience. In order to know what is good, we need to take a breather. Even to know what is bad, we need to pause.

Arden Reed in Slow Art: The Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell

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Pearls from artists* # 468

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.

Why does art elicit such different reactions from us? How can a work that bowls one person over leave another cold? Doesn’t the variability of the aesthetic feeling support the view that art is culturally determined and relative? Maybe not, if we consider the possibility that the artistic experience depends not on some subjective mood but on an individually acquired (hence variable) power to be affected by art, a capacity developed through one’s culture in tandem with one’s unique character. For evidence of this we can point to works that seem to ignore cultural boundaries altogether, affecting people of different backgrounds in comparable ways even though a specific articulation of their personal responses continues to vary. Consider the plays of William Shakespeare or Greek theater, or the fairy tales that have sprung up in similar forms on every continent. We could not be further removed from the people who painted in the Chauvet Cave, nor could we be more oblivious as to the significance they ascribed to their pictures. Yet their work affects us across the millennia. Everyone responds to them differently, of course, and the spirit in which people are likely to receive them now probably differs significantly from how it was at the beginning. But these permutations revolve around a solid core, something present in the images themselves.

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

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Pearls from artists* # 467

Udaipur, India

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

As students confronted with images of India through film and photography, we are challenged to begin to be self-conscious of who we are as “seers.” Part of the difficulty of entering the world of another culture, especially one with as intricate and elaborate a visual articulation as India’s, is that, for many of us, there are no “manageable models.” There are no self-evident ways of recognizing the shapes and forms of art, iconography, ritual life and daily life that we see. Who is Śiva, dancing wildly in a ring of fire? What is happening when the priest pours honey and yogurt over the image of Viṣṇu? Why does the woman touch the feet of the ascetic beggar? For those who enter the visible world of India through the medium of film, the onslaught of strange images raises a multitude of questions. These very questions should be the starting point for our learning. Without such self-conscious questions, we cannot begin to “think” with what we see and simply dismiss it as strange. Or worse, we are bound to misinterpret what we see by placing it solely within the context of what we already know from our own world of experience.

Diana L. Eck in Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India

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Pearls from artists* # 465

“Raconteur,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58” x 38,” signed lower left

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

In his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn proposed that if art has never been revealed its intrinsic “function” to us, it is because such a thing is beyond our ken. For the Russian writer, we are mistaken when we call art a human innovation; we ought instead to see it as a gift, something that came to us from beyond the bounds of our world. Solzhenitsyn illustrates his point by comparing the work of art to the technological marvel that a man from the proverbial Stone Age comes across in the wilderness. Unable to penetrate its secrets, the man can only turn the object this way and that, looking for “some arbitrary use to which he can put it, without suspecting an extraordinary one.” Solzhenitsyn goes on:

So also we, holding art in our hands, confidently consider ourselves to be its masters, boldly we direct it, reform and manifest it; we sell it for money, use it to please those in power; turn to it at one moment for amusement… and at another… for the passing needs of politics and for narrow-minded social ends. But art is not defiled by our efforts, neither does it thereby depart from its true nature, but on each occasion and in each application it gives us a part of its secret inner light.”

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

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Q: What’s on the easel today?

Pastel painting in progress

A: I’m working on another large (58” x 38”) “Bolivianos” pastel painting based on old Bolivian masks encountered at the Museum of Folklore and Ethnography in La Paz four years ago. The masks were made to be worn in annual Carnival celebrations that happen in the mountain town of Ouroro, about a three-hour drive from La Paz.

Comments are welcome!

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