Blog Archives

Pearls from artists* # 211

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

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

There is an ancient view that beauty is the object of a sensory rather than an intellectual delight, and that the senses must always be involved in appreciating it.  Hence, when the philosophy of art became conscious of itself at the beginning of the eighteenth century, it called itself ‘aesthetics,’ after the Greek aesthesis, sensation.  When Kant wrote that the beautiful is that which pleases immediately, and without concepts, he was providing a rich philosophical embellishment to this tradition of thinking.  Aquinas too seems to have endorsed the idea, defining the beautiful in the first part of the Summa as that which is pleasing to sight (pulchra sunt quae visa placent).  However, he modifies this statement in the second part, writing that ‘the beautiful relates only to sight and hearing of all the senses, since these are the most cognitive (maxime cognoscitive) among them.’   And this suggests, not only that he did not confine the study of beauty to the sense of sight, but that he was less concerned with the sensory impact of the beautiful than with its intellectual significance – even if it is a significance that can be appreciated only through seeing or hearing. 

Beauty:  A Very Short Introduction, by Roger Scruton

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Pearls from artists* # 202

 

Soft pastels

Soft 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 you’re working on something, you always wonder, “Can I get away with this?  Is it working?”  It’s the space between that I’ve been interested in for a long time.  I think that when I started to make, say, a triptych that came from an observation of a little Picasso drawing, the spaces in between became as important as the three actual pieces.  It’s especially true of the Wallpaper piece.  But most of the changes in my own work really evolve from one piece to the next:  from looking at my own work, the works of others, and things in my studio.  It happens when you see something that you didn’t see previously, like those scraps of clay that became the wall pieces.  It’s similar to the space that I’ve explored for years and years between artist and craftsperson, which is both interesting and challenging, and I don’t think that one thing is inferior to the other.  Each has a different goal, a different function.  Its my responsibility how nd where my work is viewed in different contexts.

In Conversation:  Betty Woodman with Phong Bui, The Brooklyn Rail, April 2016

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Q: Do you remember the first pastel painting that you ever made?

First framed pastel painting, 1988

First framed pastel painting, 1988

A:  Yes, it was a small head-and-neck portrait of a live model in a figure drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA.   I don’t know what became of it.

I also remember the first pastel painting that I ever framed because it is still hanging in my Alexandria house. It is dated 1988 (see photo) and was made in a one-week workshop with Diane Tesler at The Art League.  The workshop was specifically to teach artists how to paint from photographs and it was my first time studying with Diane.  I made the mistake of bringing, as reference material, a magazine photograph that was originally a perfume ad in the The Sunday Times Magazine. Diane tactfully explained that it was wrong to use someone else’s photograph instead of my own, but let me do it this one time. 

So many years later walking by my painting I still think of Diane.  She taught me a valuable lesson:  do not use anyone else’s photographs, ever!  

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Q: What has been your scariest experience as an artist?

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

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

A:  I’d say it was the approximately six months in 2007 when I finished the “Domestic Threats” series and was blocked, certain that a strong body of work was behind me, but not knowing what in the world to do next.  For a professional artist who had been prolific and non-stop for 21 years, this was a profoundly painful, confusing, and disorienting time.  What I remember most is continuing to force myself to go to the studio any way and, for lack of anything productive to do there, spending long hours soul-searching and reading and thinking about art.

Eventually after all of this self-reflection I figured things out and had an epiphany.  “Between,” with drastically simplified imagery, was the first painting in a new series, the “Black Paintings.”  The series continues and if I may say so, includes some of my most accomplished work to date.        

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Pearls from artists* # 163

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.

The quality an artist must have is objectivity in judging his work, plus the honesty and courage not to kid himself about it.  Since none of my work has met my own standards, I must judge it on the basis of that one which caused me the most grief and anguish, as the mother loves the child who became the thief or murderer more than the one who became the priest.

William Faulkner in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series

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Q: Would you talk about how the Judas figures you depict in your pastel paintings function in Mexico?

Some Judases

Some Judases

A:  Here’s a good explanation from a website called “Mexican Folk Art Guide”:

“La quema de Judas or the Judas burning in Mexico is a celebration held on Sabado de Gloria (Holy Saturday).  Papier mache figures symbolizing Judas Iscariot stuffed with fireworks are exploded in local plazas in front of cheerful spectators. 

The Judases exploded in public spaces can measure up to 5 meters, while 30 cm ones can be found with a firework in their back to explode at home.

In Mexico la quema de Judas dates from the beginning of the Spanish colony when the Judas effigies were made with hay and rags and burned.  Later as paper became available and the fireworks techniques arrived, thanks to the Spanish commerce route from the Philippines, the Judases were made out of cardboard, stuffed with fireworks, and exploded.

After the Independence War the celebration lost its religious character and became a secular activity.  The Judas effigies were stuffed with candies, bread, and cigarettes to attract the crowds into the business [establishment] that sponsored the Judas. 

Judas was then depicted as a devil and identified with a corrupt official, or any character that would harm people.  In 1849 a new law stipulated that it was forbidden to relate a Judas effigy with any person by putting a name on it or dressing it in a certain way to be identified with a particular person.”                                     

This is why whenever I bring home a Judas figure from Mexico, I feel like I have rescued it from a fire-y death!

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Q: When you left the Navy you worked on commission as a portrait artist. Why don’t you accept commissions now?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  As I have often said, I left the active duty Navy in 1989, but stayed in the Reserves. The Reserves provided a small part-time income and the only requirement was that I work one weekend a month and two weeks each year.  Plus, I could retire after 13 more years and receive a pension.  (In 2003 I retired from the Navy Reserve as a Commander).  The rest of the time I was free to pursue my studio practice. 

For a short time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper.  However, after a year I became very restless.  I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!”  I lost interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish personally as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted.  I finished my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back. 

To this day I remain reluctant to accept a commission of any kind.  So I am completely free to paint whatever I want, which is the only way to evolve as a serious, deeply committed artist.      

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Pearls from artists* # 58

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

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

I remember as a teenager having a group of friends at school and another group whom I spent the weekends with.  I functioned fine until on occasions when I was with friends from both groups at the same time.  Then it became really difficult, because I was used to acting very differently with the two groups.  With one I was the leader, very vocal and outspoken about my opinions.  With the other group I wanted desperately to belong and so I adapted to fit in, which meant not really being myself.

The lack of authenticity is painful.  It applies to all levels of life.  If our voice as a painter is inauthentic, we’re in trouble.  In the end there is nothing so compelling as to be yourself.  This is why being an artist can be so exhilarating.  If you want to uncover your truth, you have a daily technique to come to terms with your limitations and to overcome them.  You have an opportunity to look at the limiting stories you have written in your head and heart and rewrite them with boldness and vision.  The quality of your attention influences how you see things. 

What you put your attention on grows stronger in your life.  Life, if you look around you, whether inside or in nature, is one bubbling mass of creativity.  Recognize we have no shortage of it.  If you focus your attention on what you now decide is fundamental , that quality will grow in your life.  Not what our parents or teachers or friends or media or anybody says or said.  What we now put our attention on will grow in our life.  If you want to paint and put your focus there you will unleash a torrent of energy and enthusiasm.

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

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