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Pearls from artists* # 368

Leonora Carrington at Di Donna Galleries, NYC

Leonora Carrington at Di Donna Galleries, 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.

Whether we look to the contradictory functions that people are asked to fulfill today – devoted parent and loyal employee, faithful spouse and emancipated libertine, mature adult and eternal child – or to the ways in which identities are disbursed across divergent political forums, information systems, and communication networks, the same observation holds:  we are infinitely divided.  What is called an individual today is an abstract assemblage of fragments.  Phone calls, emails, voice mails, blogs, videos and photos, surveillance tapes, banking records:  the body is dwarfed by the virtual tendrils that shoot out if it through time and space, any of which is likely to claim to be the real “you” as you are.  Only the imaginal mind can lead us out of the maze, with art providing the symbols that mark the way to the elusive essence that truly defines us.

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action

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Q: When did your love of indigenous artifacts begin? Where have you traveled to collect these focal points of your works and what have those experiences taught you?

Mexico City

Mexico City

A:  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse.  The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure. 

I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  Two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there, as had master photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find.  At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975.  

The following autumn, Bryan and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (During my research I had become fascinated with this festival).  We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City.  My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!

Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns for the “Day of the Dead.” The indigenous people tending their ancestors’ graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with these beautiful people and their beliefs. 

From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history.  We visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations; the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice.  I was astounded!  Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. The first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently to study Olmec art and archeology. In subsequent years I have traveled to Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and other countries in search of inspiration and subject matter to depict in my work.

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Pearls from artists* # 362

On the Indian Ocean in Tanah Lot, Bali

On the Indian Ocean in Tanah Lot, Bali

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

… if we look at the artifacts of all cultures, beauty always has attracted man’s attention.  We know when we are in its presence.  We’re held.  Different pieces of art will arrest different people, and… some pieces will arrest larger numbers of people for longer periods of time.  These are the works that are perhaps worthy of being called great art.  We have to recognize that some people today, observing the greatest works of art, or the most awesome works of nature – the Grand Canyon, for instance – give it a minute and then are ready for something else.  Insatiable for change, they are immune to deep resonance.

Art and beauty are about those resonances.  It isn’t the subject matter that holds us.  Some inexplicable reaction stops us, and we find ourselves connected with something other than ourself.  Perhaps our ‘Self’ might be a better term, to distinguish it from the self that is caught up in thoughts, worries, and distractions.  I like Ken Weber’s definition, that beauty “suspends the desire to be elsewhere.” In the face of great art, we experience transcendence.

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

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Pearls from artists* # 358

Elephanta Caves, India

Elephanta Caves, India

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

According to [Rudolph] Arnheim, the way in which we reach out for and grasp the “object we see, either in our immediate range of perception or through the medium of photography, is dependent upon who we are and what we recognize from past experience.”  The visual imprint of an image, an object, or a scene upon the eye is not at all “objective.”  In the image-making process of thinking, we see, sort, and recognize according to the visual phenomenology of our own experience.  What people notice in the “same” image – be it an image of a dancing Siva or a film of a Hindu festival procession – depends to some extent on what they can recognize from the visual experience of the past.  In the case of film, of course, it also depends on what the photographer has seen and chosen to show us.  Arnheim writes that the eye and the mind, working together in the process of  cognition, cannot simply note down images that are “already there.”  “We find instead that direct observation, far from being a mere ragpicker, is an exploration of the form-seeking, form-imposing mind, which needs to understand but cannot until it casts what it sees into manageable models.”

Diana L. Eck in Darsan:  Seeing the Divine Image in India

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Pearls from artists* # 356

Some of Barbara’s pastels

Some of Barbara’s 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.

Science is concerned with the general, the abstract, and the knowable.  In contrast, art deals with the particular, the unknowable, the singular.  This applies not just to the content of artistic works but also to the way this content is received.  Even in the case of a film or concert attended by large numbers of people, the artistic experience remains a fundamentally solitary one.  Each one of us lives the work from the work alone.  Whatever sense of togetherness accompanies the experience comes precisely from the fact that, faced with the singularity of the aesthetic moment, each percipient feels his aloneness before the radical mystery that enfolds us all.  Wherever an act of creation is shared with others, then, there is individuation – not just for the author of the work but for the audience too.  The singularity of art awakens us to our own singularity, and through it to the singularity in the Other.  I have argued that artifice unifies by imposing a univocal image that replicates itself indefinitely in each spectator.  True art tears the spectral out of the mass of sameness, calling forth from the numberless crowd a new people and a new communion.  

Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

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Pearls from artists* # 348

“The Orator” in “Worlds Seen & Unseen” at Westbeth Gallery, NYC

“The Orator” in “Worlds Seen & Unseen” at Westbeth Gallery, 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.

The percipient apprehends the primal quality of art as beauty and symbol, in an experience that invariably involves a sense of radical mystery.  Art dissolves the fog of Consensus in which we normally operate to reveal the unseen in the situation.  It places us in exactly the same position as the first people who stared up at the stars in wonder.  The work of art is perpetually new; it demands reinterpretation with each era, each generation, each percipient.  Great works of art are like inexhaustible springs originating from a place beyond our “little world of man.”  They reconnect us with a reality too vast for the rational mind to comprehend.  Therefore, art can be described as the human activity through which our all-too-human mentality is overcome and in light of which all finite judgments are shown to be inefficient.  It is at once a sinking to the source and a leap toward the infinite.   

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

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Q: Was there a pivotal time in your life when you were forced to choose between two different paths? Do you have any regrets?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  In 1988 I was a Navy Lieutenant working at the Pentagon as a computer analyst. I hated my boring job! For about two years I had been taking drawing classes at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA and was rapidly improving. More importantly, I discovered that making art was endlessly fascinating and challenging.

After much soul searching, I made the scary decision to resign from active duty.  Sept. 30, 1989 was my last day. I have been a professional visual artist ever since and surprisingly (to me!), have never needed a day job.

However, for fourteen years I remained in the Naval Reserve, working in Virginia one weekend a month and for two weeks each year. After I moved to New York in 1997, I used to take Amtrak to Washington, DC. I would go from my full time New York artist’s life to my part time military life. It was extremely interesting to be around such different types of people, to say the least! On November 1, 2003 I retired as a Navy Commander.

I have never, ever regretted the path I chose. I love being an artist and would not want to spend my life doing anything else.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 331

Great Falls, VA

Great Falls, VA

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

And you should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that there is something in you that wants to break out of it.  This very wish will help you, if you use it quietly, and deliberately and like a tool, to spread out your solitude over wide country.  People have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition.  We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it.           

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Translation by M.D. Herter Norton

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Pearls from artists* # 322

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.

Think, dear sir, of the world you carry within you, and call this thinking what you will:  whether it be remembering your own childhood or yearning toward your own future – only be attentive to that which rises up in you and set it above everything that you observe about you.  What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love; you must somehow keep working at it and not lose too much time and too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people.       

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Translation by M.D. Herter Norton

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Pearls from artists* # 321

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

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

This is Bolivia, a country rich in cultural expressions.  Here many great civilizations have flourished, all of which, fundamentally, are bound to the soil from which both fruits and gods emerged.

As part of the expression of these cultures, masks are not mere accessories to conceal the face or represent a character for an artistic performance.  Neither are they simply for diversion.

Their roles as objects of art and diversion make sense only as part of a ceremonial act.  Then, masks can be understood as the remembrance of history and myth, the externalization of collective life.  They are seen within the context of a religious or social ceremony whose meaning is embedded in the past as well as present of a people.

These collective acts, without being set apart from daily life, are special celebrations where many distinct elements must be taken into account:  music, dance, costume, mask, food, drink, theatrical representation, work, history…    

Masked Dances of the Altiplano, by Manuel Vargas in Masks of the Bolivian Andes, Photographs:  Peter McFarren, Sixto Choque, Editorial Quipos and BancoMercantil

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