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Q: Another interesting series of yours that has impressed me is your recent “Black Paintings.” The pieces in this series are darker than the ones in “Domestic Threats.” You create an effective mix between the dark background and the few bright tones, which establish such a synergy rather than a contrast, and all the dark creates a prelude to light. It seems to reveal such a struggle, a deep tension, and intense emotions. Any comments on your choice of palette and how it has changed over time?

West 29th Street studio

West 29th Street studio

A:  That is a great question!  

You are correct that my palette has darkened. It’s partly from having lived in New York for so long. This is a generally dark city. We famously dress in black and the city in winter is mainly greys and browns.  

Also, the “Black Paintings” are definitely post-9/11 work. My husband, Bryan, was tragically killed onboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Losing Bryan was the biggest shock I ever have had to endure, made even harder because it came just 87 days after we had married. We had been together for 14 ½ years and in September 2001 were happier than we had ever been. He was killed so horribly and so senselessly. Post 9/11 was an extremely difficult, dark, and lonely time.  

In the summer of 2002 I resumed making art, continuing to make “Domestic Threats” paintings. That series ran its course and ended in 2007. Around then I was feeling happier and had come to better terms with losing Bryan (it’s something I will never get over but dealing with loss does get easier with time). When I created the first “Black Paintings” I consciously viewed the background as literally, the very dark place that I was emerging from, exactly like the figures emerging in these paintings. The figures themselves are wildly colorful and full of life, so to speak, but that black background is always there.       

Comments are welcome!     

Q: What’s the point of all of this? Shouldn’t we be discussing how to end poverty or promote world peace? What can art do?

Lightning Field, Quemado, NM

Lightning Field, Quemado, NM

A:   I happen to recently have read an inspiring book by Anne Bogart, the theater director.  It’s called, “and then you act:  making art in an unpredictable world” and she talks about such issues.  I’ll quote her wise words below:
 
“Rather than the experience of life as a shard, art can unite and connect the strands of the universe.  When you are in touch with art, borders vanish and the world opens up.  Art can expand the definition of what it means to be human.  So if we agree to hold ourselves to higher standards and make more rigorous demands on ourselves, then we can say in our work, ‘We have asked ourselves these questions and we are trying to answer them, and that effort earns us the right to ask you, the audience, to face these issues, too.’  Art demands action from the midst of the living and makes a space where growth can happen.
 
One day, particularly discouraged about the global environment, I asked my friend the playwright Charles L. Mee, Jr., ‘How are we supposed to function in these difficult times?  How can we contribute anything useful in this climate?’  ‘Well,’ he answered, ‘You have a choice of two possible directions.  Either you convince yourself that these are terrible times and things will never get better and so you decide to give up, or, you choose to believe that there will be a better time in the future.  If that is the case, your job in these  dark political and social times is to gather together everything you value and become a transport bridge.  Pack up what you cherish and carry it on your back to the future.'”

“…  In the United States, we are the targets of mass distraction.  We are the objects of constant flattery and manufactured desire.  I believe that the only possible resistance to a culture of banality is quality.  To me, the world often feels unjust, vicious, and even unbearable.  And yet, I know that my development as a person is directly proportional to my capacity for discomfort.  I see pain, destructive behavior and blindness of the political sphere.  I watch wars declared, social injustices that inhabit the streets of my hometown, and a planet in danger of pollution and genocide.  I have to do something.  My chosen field of action is the theater.”

Comments are welcome!

Q: You have sometimes spoken about your early work as a portrait artist. When and why did you start making portraits? Do you still do them?

"Bryan," soft pastel on sandpaper, 22" x 28", 1988

“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.  

Comments are welcome!   

Q: Why do you work in series?

The studio recently

The studio recently

A:  I don’t really have any choice in the matter.  It’s more or less the way I have always worked so it feels natural.  Art-making comes from a deep place.  In keeping with the aphorism ars longa, vita brevis, it’s a way of making one’s time on earth matter.  Working in series mimics the more or less gradual way that our lives unfold, the way we slowly evolve and change over the years.  Life-altering events happen, surely, but seldom do we wake up drastically different – in thinking, in behavior, etc. – from what we were the day before.  Working in series feels authentic.  It helps me eke out every lesson my paintings have to teach.  With each completed piece, my ideas progress a step or two further. 

Last week I went to the Metropolitan Museum to see an exhibition called, “Matisse:  In Search of True Painting.”  It demonstrates how Matisse worked in series, examining a subject over time and producing multiple paintings of it.  Matisse is my favorite artist of any period in history.  I never tire of seeing his work and this particular exhibition is very enlightening.  In fact, it’s a must-see and I plan to return, something I rarely do because there is always so much to see and do in New York.  As I studied the masterpieces on the wall, I recognized a kindred spirit and thought, “Obviously, working in series was good enough for Matisse!”    

Comments are welcome!

Q: Does your work look different to you on days when you are sad, happy, etc.?

Recent work

Recent work

A: I’m more critical on days when I am sad so that the faults, imperfections, and things I wish I had done better stand out.  Fortunately, all of my work is framed behind plexiglas so I can’t easily go back in to touch up newly-perceived faults.  It reminds me of the expression, “Always strive to improve, whenever possible.  It is ALWAYS possible!”  However, I’ve learned that re-working a painting is a bad idea.  You are no longer deeply involved in making it and the zeitgeist has changed.  The things you were concerned with are gone: some are forgotten, others are less urgent.  For most artists the work is autobiography.  Everything is personal.  When I look at a completed pastel painting, I usually remember exactly what was happening in my life as I worked on it.  Each piece is a snapshot – maybe even a time capsule, if anyone could decode it – that reflects and records a particular moment.  When I finally pronounce a piece finished and sign it, that’s it, THE END.  It’s as good as I can make it at that point in time.  I’ve incorporated everything I was thinking about, what I was reading, how I was feeling, what I valued, art exhibitions I visited, programs  that I heard on the radio or watched on television, music that I listened to, what was going on in New york, in the country, in the world, and so on.   It is still  a mystery how this heady mix finds its way into the work.  During the time that I spend on it, each particular painting teaches me everything it has to teach.  A painting requires months of looking, reacting, correcting, searching, thinking, re-thinking, revising.  Each choice is made for a reason and as an aggregate these decisions dictate what the final piece looks like.  On days when I’m sad I tend to forget that.   On happier days I remember that the framed pastel paintings that you see have an inevitability to them.  If all art is the result of one’s having gone through an experience to the end, as I believe it is, then the paintings could not, and should not, look any differently.

Comments are welcome.