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Q: Why do you make art?

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

A:  Last spring I viewed Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  One thing that stayed with me is her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard” in which she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.  

I want to share some of my own personal reasons here, in no particular order.  My list keeps changing, but these are true at least for today. 

1.   Because I love the entire years-long creative process – from foreign travel whereby I discover new source material, to deciding what I will make, to the months spent in the studio realizing my ideas, to packing up my newest pastel painting and bringing it to my Virginia framer’s shop, to seeing the framed piece hanging on a collector’s wall, to staying in touch with collectors over the years and learning how their relationship to the work changes.

2.   Because I love walking into my studio in the morning and seeing all of that color!  No matter what mood I am in, my spirit is immediately uplifted.  

3.   Because my studio is my favorite place to be… in the entire world.  I’d say that it is my most precious creation.  It’s taken more than twenty-two years to get it this way.  I hope I never have to move!

4.   Because I get to listen to my favorite music all day or to Public Radio stations.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of it’s urgent problems.  The same goes for whatever personal problems I am experiencing.

6.   Because I am devoted to my medium.  How I use pastel continually evolves.  It’s exciting to keep learning about its properties and to see what new techniques will develop.

7.   Because I have been given certain gifts and abilities and that entails a sacred obligation to USE them.  I could not live with myself were I to do otherwise.

8.   Because art-making gives meaning and purpose to my life.  I never wake up in the morning wondering, how should I spend the day?  I have important work to do and a place to do it.  I know this is how I am supposed to be spending my time on earth.

9.   Because I have an enviable commute.  To get to my studio it’s a thirty-minute walk, often on the High Line early in the morning before throngs of tourists have arrived.

10.  Because life as an artist is never easy.  It’s a continual challenge to keep forging ahead, but the effort is also never boring.  

11.  Because each day in the studio is different from all the rest. 

12.  Because I love the physicality of it.  I stand all day.  I’m always moving and staying fit.

13.  Because I have always been a thinker more than a talker.  I enjoy and crave solitude.  I am often reminded of the expression, “She who travels the farthest, travels alone.”  In my work I travel anywhere.

14.  Because spending so much solitary time helps me understand what I think and feel and to reflect on the twists and turns of my unexpected and fascinating life.

15.  Because I learn about the world.  I read and do research that gets incorporated into the work.

16.  Because I get to make all the rules.  I set the challenges and the goals, then decide what is succeeding and what isn’t.  It is working life at its most free.

17.  Because I enjoy figuring things out for myself instead of being told what to do or how to think.

18.  Because despite enormous obstacles, I am still able to do it.  Art-making has been the focus of my life for thirty-three years – I was a late bloomer – and I intend to continue as long as possible.

19.  Because I have been through tremendous tragedy and deserve to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I love.  The art world has not caught up yet, but so be it.  This is my passion and my life’s work and nothing will change that.

20.  Because thanks to the internet and via social media, my work can be seen in places I have never been to and probably will never go.

21.  Because I would like to be remembered.  The idea of leaving art behind for future generations to appreciate and enjoy is appealing.

Comments are welcome!

Q: I especially enjoy your “Black Paintings” series. You mention being influenced by the story of how Miles Davis developed cool jazz, making this work uniquely American all around. How did you use jazz history in this series?

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

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

A:  In 2007 I finished the Domestic Threats series and was blocked, certain that a strong body of work was behind me. But what would come next?  

The idea for the Black Paintings began when I attended a jazz history course at Lincoln Center and learned how Miles Davis developed cool jazz from bebop. In bebop the notes were played hard and fast as musicians showcased their musical virtuosity. Cool jazz was a much more relaxed style with fewer notes being played. In other words, the music was pared down to its essentials. Similarly, the Black Paintings evolved from dense, intricate compositions into paintings that depicted only the essential elements. As the series evolved, what was left out became more important, resulting in more demands being placed on the viewer.

Eventually, after much reflection, I had an epiphany and my painful creative block ended.  “Between,” with drastically simplified imagery, was the first in a new series called Black Paintings.  I like to think this series includes work that is richer and more profound than the previous Domestic Threats.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 366

Studio entrance

Studio entrance

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

For some artists the studio becomes like a temple, a place that becomes invested with a sacred energy.  I was looking at a book recently called Artist at Work.  It featured the studios of several well-known American artists.  In almost every case the space reminded me of a chapel in a cathedral.  The physical, emotional, and even spiritual elevation the space created contributed to the work.

 This is the home turf of your creative space.  A space that stays undisturbed from the rest of daily forces.  It stays open for your arrival.  When you walk in you acquire a heightened readiness to begin.  Your dining room table that must be cleared off for the evening meal will require more energy from you each time you begin.  but a studio collects energy and focuses it, ready for your return.  That space may be your garden, the view behind the house, or a desk in a bedroom that is reserved for your creative work.  But it will help to secure it.  It is your temple, the place where you focus your energies to express yourself.  Your creative home base.

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

Comments are welcome!

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:  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, yet not knowing what in the world to do next!  For a professional artist who had been working non-stop for 21 years, this was a profoundly painful, confusing, and disorienting time.  I remember continuing to force myself to go to the studio and for lack of anything much to do there, spending long hours reading and thinking about art.

Eventually after all of this reflection, I had an epiphany.  “Between,” with drastically simplified imagery, was the first in a new series called, “Black Paintings.”  I like to think this series includes work that is considerably richer and more profound than the previous “Domestic Threats.”


Co
mments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 161

Whitney Museum

Whitney Museum

* 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 is the artist’s innate sensitivity that makes him special and different from other professionals.  Society expects the artist to be more compassionate and understanding in order to bring out that which will enlighten, inspire and encourage life in his work.  His vocation should not just be for art’s sake.

Where the average person sees an old beat-up shark, the artist sees a symbol of beauty in aging and imagines bringing out those qualities that the shark has sheltered over the ages, by means of artistic creation.  To the intelligent and sensitive artist, the homeless man lying on the street corner is a symbol that reminds us of what we, as a society, should be doing to better our living. 

Sensitivity comes into play when leaves that appear to the general viewer to be uniformly green are seen by the sensitive artist to be different shades, tones, and subtle nuances of green.  Without sensitivity, special and important characteristics of nature will be out of our sight and out of reach to the viewing layman.  Only the obvious, the average and the common will reveal themselves to the insensitive artist.  The endurance of certain works will depend on what the artist has captured with the help of his sensitivity and because of the ideas behind the work.

Samuel Adoquei in Origin of Inspiration:  Seven Short Essays for Creative People

Comments are welcome!        

Pearls from artists* # 158

“Dichotomy,” 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.

It is the artist’s innate sensitivity that makes him special and different from other professionals.  Society expects the artist to be more compassionate and understanding in order to bring out that which will enlighten, inspire and encourage life in his work.  His vocation should not just be art for art’s sake.

Where the average person sees an old beat-up shark, the artist sees a symbol of beauty in aging and imagines bringing out those qualities that the shark has sheltered over the ages by means of artistic creation.  To the intelligent and sensitive artist, the homeless man lying on the street corner is a symbol that reminds us of what we, as a society, should do to better our living.

Sensitivity comes into play when leaves that appear to the general viewer to be uniformly green are seen by the sensitive artist to be different shades, tones and nuances of green.  Without sensitivity, special and important characteristics of nature will be out of sight and out of reach to the viewing layman.  Only the obvious, the average and the common will reveal themselves to the insensitive artist.  The endurance of certain works will depend on what the artist has captured with the help of his sensitivity and because of the ideas behind the work.

Samuel Adoquei in Origin of Inspiration:  Seven Short Essays for Creative People 

Comments are welcome!       

Q: Were there any other artists in your family?

“The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38,” 2013

A:  Unfortunately, I have not been able to reconstruct my family tree further back than two generations.  So as far as I can tell, I am the first artist of any sort, whether musician, actor, dancer, writer, etc. in my  family.  

Both sets of grandparents emigrated to the United States from Europe.  On my mother’s side my Polish grandparents died by the time my mother was 16, years before I was born.  

My paternal grandparents both lived into their 90s.  My father’s mother spoke Czech, but since I did not, it was difficult to communicate.  I never heard any stories about the family she left behind.  My grandfather spoke English, but I don’t remember him ever talking about his childhood or telling stories about his former life.  My most vivid memories of my grandfather are seeing him in the living room watching Westerns on an old-fashioned television.

Sometimes I am envious of artists who had parents, siblings, or extended family who were artists.  How I would have loved to grow up with a family member who was an artist and a role model! 

Comments are welcome!  

Q: Do you have any essential words that you live by?

Studio wall

Studio wall

A:  I certainly do!  When I left the active duty Navy in 1989, my co-workers threw a farewell party.  One of the parting gifts I received was a small plaque from Tina Greene, a young enlisted woman whom I had supervised.  The words on the plaque deeply resonated with me, since I was about to make a significant, risky, and scary career change.  It was the perfect gift for someone facing the uncertainty of an art career. 

Many years later Tina’s plaque is still a proud possession of mine.  It is hanging on the wall behind my easel, to be read every day as I work.  It says:

“Excellence can be attained if you…

Care more than others think is wise…

Risk more than others think is safe…

Dream more than others think is practical…

Expect more than others think is possible.”

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 102

New York, NY

New York, NY

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

That a photograph is unlikely to be a laboratory record is evident when we think about how it is made.  Most photographers are people of immense enthusiasms whose work involves many choices – to brake the car, grab the yellow instead of the green filter, wait out the cloud, and at the second everything looks inexplicably right, to release the shutter.  Behind these decisions stands the photographer’s individual framework of recollections and meditations about the way he perceived that place or places like it before.  Without such a background there would be no knowing whether the scene on the ground glass was characteristic of the geography and of his experience of it and intuition of it – in short, whether it was true.

Making photographs has to be, then, a personal matter; when it is not, the results are not persuasive.  Only the artist’s presence in the work can convince us that its affirmation resulted from and has been tested by human experience.  Without the photographer in the photograph the view is no more compelling than the product of some annoying record camera, a machine perhaps capable of happy accident but not response to form.

Beauty in Photography by Robert Adams

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 96

 

Diane Arbus Revelations

Diane Arbus Revelations

* 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 final day at the magic shop [in Disneyland, where he worked as a teenager], I stood behind the counter where I had pitched Svengali decks and the Incredible Shrinking Die, and I felt an emotional contradiction: nostalgia for the present. Somehow, even though I had stopped working only minutes earlier, my future fondness for the store was clear, and I experienced a sadness like that of looking at a photo of an old, favorite pooch. It was dusk by the time I left the shop, and I was redirected by a security guard who explained that a photographer was taking a picture and would I please use the side exit.

I did, and saw a small, thin woman with hacked brown hair aim her large-format camera directly at the dramatically lit castle, where white swans floated in the moat underneath the functioning drawbridge. Almost forty years later, when I was in my early fifties, I purchased that photo as a collectible, and it still hangs in my house. The photographer, it turned out, was Diane Arbus. I try to square the photo’s breathtaking romantic image with the rest of her extreme subject matter, and I assume she saw this facsimile of a castle as though it were a kitsch roadside statue of Paul Bunyan. Or perhaps she saw it as I did: beautiful.

Quoted by A.D. Coleman in Photocritical, May 28, 2014, from Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

Comments are welcome! 

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