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Pearls from artists* # 443

Working. Photo: Kimberly Okner-Kevorkian
Working. Photo: Kimberly Okner-Kevorkian

*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 theater has been good to me. It has produced great friendships, love, travel, hard work, fun, terror and pleasure. It has also offered an entire life of study. Study is a full-time engagement which includes reading books, reading people, reading situations, reading about the past and reading about the present. To study, you enter into a situation with your whole being, you listen and then begin to move around inside it with your imagination. You can study every situation you are in. You can learn to read life while life is happening.

Anne Bogart in A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre

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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* # 438

Chalcatzingo, Mexico

Chalcatzingo, 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.

Although {Manuel} Alvarez Bravo and Cartier-Bresson were both important mentors for Iturbide, her photographs, as she confirms, are not connected to Surrealism in any way.  Henri Cartier-Bresson’s publication Carnets du Mexique (Mexican Notebooks) was an important influence, as it presented a visual representation of Mexico that resonated with her.  (Cartier-Bresson also worked mainly in Juchitan, where Iturbide has spent a great deal of time).  However, Iturbide developed a way of working quite different from Cartier-Bresson’s.  What distinguishes the two artists’ photographs lies in the notion of the fleeting instant, or, as Cartier-Bresson called it, “the decisive moment.”  Iturbide refers to Cartier-Bresson’s interest in the “sharp eye” and capturing an instant in time, and describes her own intentions when photographing:  “More than in time, I’m interested in the artistic form of the symbol.”  Further, Iturbide’s photographs are taken with an understanding of the people, rituals, and symbols of the communities she captures, which makes them stand apart from Cartier-Bresson’s fleeting moments of Mexico.  Her work is informed by her deep connection and empathy for her subjects.

Kristen Gresh in Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico         

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Pearls from artists* # 435

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.

Most artists are not as estranged from their fellow human beings, as bereft of reasons for existing, or as alienated from the common values and enthusiasms of the world as are the outsider characters created by existential writers like Kafka, Camus, and Sartre.  But insofar as artists do regularly feel different from other people, a differentness experienced both as a sense of oddness and a sense of specialness, they identify with the outsider’s concerns and come to the interpersonal moment in guarded or distant fashion.

In part, artists are outsiders because of the personal mythology they possess.  This mythology is a blend of beliefs about the importance of the individual, the responsibility of the artist as a maker of culture and a witness to the truth, and the ordained separateness of the artist.  Artists often stand apart on principle, like Napoleonic figures perched on a hill overlooking the battle.

The artist may also find himself [sic] speechless in public.  Around him people chat, but he has little to offer.  Too much of what he knows and feels has gone directly into his art and too much has been revealed to him in solitude – infinitely more than he can share in casual conversation.     

Eric Maisel, A Life in the Arts:  Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative and Performing Artists

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Pearls from artists* # 433

Chatting with Jenny Holzer.  It looks like she did not want her picture taken, but she was actually waiving. VIGIL: Jenny Holzer and @creativetime

Chatting with Jenny Holzer.  It looks like she did not want her picture taken, but she was actually waiving.

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

…Two positions exist, the artistic and the commercial.  Between these two an abiding tension persists.  The eighteenth-century American painter Gilbert Stuart complained, “What a business is that of portrait painter.  He is brought a potato and is expected to paint a peach.”  The artist learns that the public wants peaches, not potatoes.  You can paint potatoes if you like, write potatoes, dance potatoes, and compose potatoes, you can with great and valiant effort communicate with some other potato-eaters and peach-eaters.  In so doing you contribute to the world’s reservoir of truth and beauty.  But if you won’t give the public peaches, you won’t be paid much.

Repeatedly artists take the heroic potato position.  They want their work to be good, honest, powerful – and only then successful.  They want their work to be alive, not contrived and formulaic.  As the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch put it:  “No longer shall I paint interiors, and people reading, and women knitting.  I shall paint living people, who breathe and feel and suffer and love.”

The artist is interested in the present and has little desire to repeat old, albeit successful formulas.  As the painter Jenny Holzer put it, “I could do a pretty good third generation-stripe painting, but so what? 

The unexpected result of the artist’s determination to do his [sic] own best art is that he is put in an adversarial relationship with the public.  In that adversarial position he comes to feel rather irrational for what rational person would do work that’s not wanted? 

…Serious work not only doesn’t sell well, it’s also judged by different standards.  If the artist writes an imperfect but commercial novel it is likely to be published and sold.  If his screenplay is imperfect but commercial enough it may be produced.  If it is imperfect and also uncommercial it will not be produced.  If his painting is imperfect but friendly and familiar it may sell well.  If it is imperfect and also new and difficult, it may not sell for decades, if ever.

Ironically enough, the artist attempting serious work must also attain the very highest level of distinction possible.  He must produce Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov but not also The Insulted and Injured or A Raw Youth, two of Dostoevsky’s nearly unknown novels.  He is given precious little space in this regard.      

I daresay, this last is why I devote my life to creating the most unique, technically advanced pastel paintings anyone will see!

Eric Maisel, A Life in the Arts:  Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative and Performing Artists

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you speak about the creative process that resulted in your 1994 pastel painting, “Amok”?

Barbara with “Amok” photo and painting
Barbara with “Amok,” c-print and pastel painting

A: Behind me in the photo above is one of my circa 1994 50” x 40” c-prints, signed by both Bryan, my late husband, and me. The photo was my reference for a pastel painting titled, “Amok” (right, above).

I staged these photos in our Alexandria house (staged photography was popular then), refined the composition over days or weeks, and lit the scene using two tungsten studio lights. I was careful to accentuate the shadows, doing what I could to light everything as though it were a film noir set. (Film noir is still a favorite movie genre of mine).

In those days I knew nothing about photography so I considered these photos collaborations, since Bryan clicked the shutter. (He typically shot two pieces of film using his old Toyo Omega 4 x 5 view camera with a rented wide angle lens). Bryan was reluctant to take any credit- insisting that the idea, concept, etc. were mine – but I persuaded him to also sign the photos. (How I wish he were still around to fill in forgotten details about our collaboration).

People enjoyed and often asked to purchase the reference photos so I sometimes had them enlarged and sold them. The dragon in the foreground is significant because it was my first purchase in Oaxaca during our initial trip to Mexico.

If anyone is interested, please remind me to tell the (long) story about how I got it home on the plane!  

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Pearls from artists* # 431

New York Harbor

New York Harbor

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

Writer Stanley Elkin suggested that all books retell the Old Testament story of Job.  Similarly one feels that behind most music there is a struggle with pain.  By the time we are adults, the songs we know by heart are often those that acknowledge grief or celebrate release, and the performers we respect are the ones who sing from need – people like Etta James, of whom it was said that she “always hit the notes with the right amount of hurt and hope.”

A photographer’s subject is his or her score, the given notes on a page.  The way the photographer hits these notes – shows the subject – determines whether we will be newly reconciled with it.          

Robert Adams in Art Can Help

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Pearls from artists* # 421

Mexico City

Mexico 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.

The economic meltdown that followed the crash of the U.S. stock market in 1929 shattered the country’s faith in itself.  With one third of the country unemployed and droughts devastating the Midwest, many Americans doubted their ability to endure and triumph.  More than ever, as the American novelist John Dos Passos asserted, the country needed to know “what kind of firm ground other men, belonging to generations before us, have found to stand on.”  Guided by the Mexican muralists, whose art they had ample opportunities to study in reproduction and exhibition, American artists responded by seeking elements from the country’s past, which they mythologized into epics of strength and endurance in an effort to help the nation revitalize itself.

Thomas Hart Benton led the charge.  Long a vociferous critic of European abstraction as elitist and out of touch with ordinary people, Benton hailed the Mexican muralists for the resolute public engagement of their art and for portraying the pageant of Mexican national life, exhorting his fellow American artists to follow their example in forging a similar public art for the U.S., even as he firmly rejected the communist ideology that often inflected the Mexican artists’ work.  African American artists were likewise inspired by the Mexican muralists’ celebration of the people’s fight for emancipation.  In creating redemptive narratives of social justice and liberation, artists such as Charles White and Jacob Lawrence transformed that struggle for freedom and equality into a new collective identity, one that foregrounded the contribution of African Americans to national life.        

Vida Americana:  Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925 – 1945, edited by Barbara Haskell

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Pearls from artists* # 414

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.

As we grow into our true artistic selves, we start to realize that the tools don’t matter, the story does.  Your point of view and the way that you express yourself as a photographer are how you tell the stories that matter to you.  And that, my friends, is therapeutic.

There’s a certain amount of Zen in that act.  Peace and tranquility are hard to come by in today’s world.  But through photography, we all have a chance to find both.

As photographers, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that our ability to use a camera gives us a chance to show everyone else who we are.  Young photographers often obsess over doing something new. Older photographers, like Rick and I, realize that the real goal is in being you.  So focus on being you not on being new for new’s sake.  This is the path to both inner and outer success.

People will ask you what you photograph.  I personally am often described as a bird photographer.  But we are not what we do.  It’s important to note the difference.  And that is because people don’t care what you do.  They care why you do it.  If you are doing what you are meant to do, you will be able to articulate your own why. 

Scott Bourne in Photo Therapy Motivation and Wisdom by Rick Sammon 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 413

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.

We photographers are particularly drawn to light in all of its manifestations.  Who knows why?  We just simply seem to be attracted to light more than other people, even when we’re not taking photos.  We notice little things.  The way a curtain might cut a shadow across the floor.  The way a blue iris might fold light into itself.  The way a child’s skin has a glow without any filters.  And as we all know, beautiful caverns can be created by the manner in which water flows through rock.  I think there is a parallel with us.  The light that flows through us carves our souls.

Rick Sammon in Photo Therapy Motivation and Wisdom   

Comments are welcome!

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