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Pearls from artists* # 441

*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 most perennially popular category of art is the cheerful, pleasant, and pretty kind: meadows in spring, the shade of trees on hot summer days, pastoral landscapes, smiling children. This can be deeply troubling to people of taste and intelligence.   

… The worries about prettiness are twofold. First, pretty pictures are alleged to feed sentimentality. Sentimentality is a symptom of insufficient engagement with complexity, by which one really means problems. The pretty picture seems to suggest that in order to make life nice, one merely has to brighten up the apartment with a depiction of some flowers. If we were to ask the picture what is wrong with the world, it might be taken as saying ‘You don’t have enough Japanese water gardens’ – a response that appears to ignore all the more urgent problems that confront humanity (primarily economic, but also moral, political, and sexual). The very innocence and simplicity of the picture seems to mitigate against any attempt to improve life as a whole. Secondly, there is the related fear that prettiness will numb us and leave us insufficiently critical and alert to the injustices surrounding us.

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy 

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Pearls from artists* # 434

West Village, NYC

West Village, NYC

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

What do we carry forward?  My family lived in New Jersey near Manhattan until I was ten, and although I have enjoyed spending my adult life as a photographer in the American West, when we left New Jersey for Wisconsin in 1947 I was homesick.

The only palliative I recall, beyond my parents’ sympathy was the accidental discovery in a magazine of pictures by a person of whom I had never heard but of scenes I recognized.  The artist was Edward Hopper and one of the pictures was of a woman sitting in a sunny window in Brooklyn, a scene like that in the apartment of a woman who had cared for my sister and me.  Other views resembled those I recalled from the train to Hoboken.  There was also a picture inside a second-floor restaurant, one strikingly like the restaurant where my mother and I occasionally had lunch in New York.

The pictures were a comfort but of course none could permanently transport me home.  In the months that followed, however, they began to give me something lasting, a realization of the poignancy of light.  With it, all pictures were interesting.         

Robert Adams in Art Can Help

Q: How do you start your day?

Working

Working

A:  (Note: this is my pre-pandemic answer).

I have always been a morning person. I wake up about 6:00, make breakfast, and spend about an hour online checking email, monitoring and responding to social media (my two assistants devote their efforts to social media marketing of my work), catching up on news (art sites like Hyperallergic, The New York Times, the BBC, etc.). I swim three or four times a week. On those days I leave my apartment by 7:30, walk to the pool, swim for an hour, and arrive at the studio about 11. On days when I don’t swim, I generally arrive at the studio between 9:30 and 10.

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am still in the early stages of a large pastel painting.  After visiting Peru and Miami for three weeks, it has taken a few days to readjust and get back into my work routine.

In case you’re wondering, the undistinguished gray shape, roughly center left, is a placeholder for a stone figure found at a shaman’s shop in Chinchero, Peru.  When I took this photo, the figure was at my apartment instead of in the studio (and I need to see the figure to paint it).

 

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you think living in New York affects your work?

Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

A:  Arguably, life in New York provides an artist with direct access to some of the best international art of the past, the present, and probably the future.  It is possible to see more art here – both good and bad – than in any other American city.  

Just pick up any local magazine and scan the art listings!  Our problem is never that there isn’t anything interesting to see or do.  It’s “how do we zero in on the most significant local cultural activities, ones that might contribute to making us better artists?”   

Certainly a visual artist’s work is consciously and unconsciously influenced not only by what she sees in museums and galleries, but by walking around the city.  That’s partly why I am an inveterate walker.  I never know what amazing things I am going to see when I leave my apartment.

Although living in New York City is a rich and heady mix for anyone, it is more so for sensitive artists.  Artists are virtual sponges, soaking up experiences, processing them, and mysteriously expressing them in our work. 

New York lets an artist ponder excellence as we see and experience firsthand what is possible.  The best of the best manages to make its way here.    

Undoubtedly, my own work is richer for having spent the last eighteen years in this fascinating, wild, and crazy city.  For a visual artist New York is an infinitely fascinating place to live.

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Do you have any favorite memories of visiting museums when you were a child?

Calder's circus at the new Whitney Museum of American Art

Calder’s circus at the new Whitney Museum of American Art

A:  Yes, I loved seeing Alexander Calder’s wire circus at the Whitney Museum of American Art when I was a child.  The circus, and the charming movie that he made with his long-suffering wife (to me she always looked bored and embarrassed that her husband was playing with his toys!) used to be on permanent display in a glass case on the ground floor.  For many years Calder’s circus was in storage.  

How thrilling to see it again, when the new Whitney Museum opened in May, just blocks from my apartment!  Now any day of the week I can visit Calder’s circus – and other favorite works that have not been on exhibit for many years! 

Comments are welcome!  

Q: How do you experience art in New York?

 

 

Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

 

A:  As a New York artist I am very fortunate to live in a city with a vibrant, exciting cultural scene.  Simply put, art is in the air here and I take inspiration from everything I see and experience:  painting, photography, sculpture, installation, performance art, public art, dance, theater, film, opera, jazz, etc.  This city itself is an endlessly fascinating place.  Visually it is always thrilling!  I never know what I am going to see – good and bad – whenever I leave my apartment.  

I have been living here since April 1997.  The city provides a heady mix to ponder and this mix mysteriously enriches, influences, and somehow finds its way into the work.  I have been an artist for nearly thirty years and I continue to be intrigued with watching the intricacies of how my creative process evolves and grows.    

Comments are welcome!                

Q: How do you select a photograph to use as reference material to make a pastel painting?

Photograph, left, and work in progress

Photograph, left, and work in progress

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.

Comments are welcome!  

Q: Your relationship with photography has changed considerably over the years. How did you make use of photography in your first series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, “Domestic Threats”?

"Truth Betrayed by Innocence," 2001, 58" x 38", the last pastel painting for which Bryan photographed my setup

“Truth Betrayed by Innocence,” 2001, 58″ x 38″,  the last pastel painting for which Bryan photographed the setup

A:  When my husband, Bryan, was alive I barely picked up a camera, except to photograph sights encountered during our travels. Throughout the 1990s and beyond (ending in 2007), I worked on my series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings called, “Domestic Threats.”  These were realistic depictions of elaborate scenes that I staged in our 1932 Sears house in Alexandria, Virginia, and later, in a New York sixth floor walk-up apartment, using the Mexican masks, carved wooden animals, and other folk art figures that I found on our trips to Mexico. I staged and lit these setups, while Bryan photographed them using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera.  We had been collaborating this way almost from the beginning (we met on February 21, 1986).  Having been introduced to photography by his father at the age of 6, Bryan was a terrific amateur photographer. He would shoot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I would select one, generally the one that showed the most detail in the shadows, to make into a 20 x 24 photograph. The photograph would be my starting point for making the pastel painting. Although I work from life, too, I could not make a painting without mostly looking at a reference photo.  After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I had no choice but to study photography.  Over time, I turned myself into a skilled photographer.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you listen to music while you work?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  I always have the stereo on when I work in my studio, either tuned in to WBGO (the Newark-based jazz station), WNYC (for news and talk radio; Leonard Lopate, Fresh Air, etc.), WFMU (Fordham University’s radio station, to learn what college kids are listening to) and other local radio stations.  I still listen to cd’s, I read the lyrics and the liner notes, and I prefer to listen to music the way artists intended it, meaning that I listen to entire albums from start to finish instead of jumping around between single tracks by different artists.  When it comes to music, I’m interested in everything:  jazz (especially classic jazz artists like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakely, etc.), blues, classical, pop, rock, world music (especially artists from Brazil, Cuba, and any country in Africa), electronic, indy, experimental, ancient music, etc.  You name it, I probably listen to it, and if I don’t, I’m eager to learn all about it.  When I’m working, certain artists are better to listen to at particular points in a painting.  For example, one of my favorite artists to start a new painting with is Lady Gaga.  The beat, her energy, and sheer exuberance are perfect when I’m standing in  front of my easel with a blank piece of sandpaper in front of me.  Gaga’s music gets me moving and working fast, putting down colors instinctively without thinking about them, just feeling everything.   

It’s a different story when I am at my apartment and am shooting a photo setup.  Then I might or might not listen to music. Lately it’s more about working fast (I shoot 24 images in about 15 minutes), choosing a variety of interesting vantage points, getting surprising effects, etc.

Comments are welcome!

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