Blog Archives

Q: What is the reality of the art world today? Do people experience it enough?

West 29th Street studio

West 29th Street studio

A:  I cannot comment on the art world today or the experience of other people.  I can only speak for myself.  I am completely devoted to my work; my entire life revolves around art.  When I’m not in my studio creating, I am reading about art, thinking about it, gaining inspiration from other artists and from artistic travel, working out new ideas, going to museum and gallery exhibitions, trying to understand the business side of things, etc.   Art is a calling and I personally experience it enough as my work continues to evolve! 

Comments are welcome! 

 

Pearls from artists* # 98

Teleidoscope

Teleidoscope

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

A work of art can start you thinking about some aesthetic or philosophical problem; it can suggest some new method, some fresh approach to fiction.  But the relationship between reading and writing is rarely so clear-cut…

To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light.  Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies.  The only remedy to this I have found is to read a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own – a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.

Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer:  A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them  

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you speak about your first trip to Mexico?

 

With an amate tree at Chalcatzingo

With an amate tree at Chalcatzingo

A:  In the early 90’s my late husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Oaxaca and to Mexico City.  At the time I had become fascinated with the Mexican “Day of the Dead” celebrations so our trip was timed to see them firsthand.  Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns.  The indigenous people tending their ancestor’s 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.  On that first trip to Mexico we visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations  (it is still one of my favorite museums in the world); 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. This 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 this past March to study Olmec art and culture.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What have you learned about the people of Mexico through your travels, reading, and research?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  It didn’t take long to become smitten with these beautiful people.  It happened on my first trip there in 1992 when Bryan and I, along with busloads of other tourists, were visiting the Oaxacan cemeteries on The Day of the Dead.  The Oaxaquenos tending their ancestor’s 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 them and with their beliefs.  My studies since that time have given me a deeper appreciation for the art, architecture, history, mythology, etc. that comprise the extremely rich and complex story of Mexico as a cradle of civilization in the West.  It is a wonderfully heady mix and hopefully some of it comes through in my work as a painter and a photographer.

By the way I often wonder why the narrative of Mexico’s fascinating history was not taught in American public schools, at least not where I went to public school in suburban New Jersey.  Mexico is our neighbor, for goodness sake, but when I speak to many Americans about Mexico they have never learned anything about the place!  It’s shocking, but many people think only “Spring Break” and/or “Drug Wars,” when they hear the word “Mexico.”  As a kid I remember learning about Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and other early civilizations in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, but very little about Mexico.  We learned about the Maya, when it was still believed that they were a peaceful people who devoted their lives to scientific and religious pursuits, but that story was debunked years ago.  And I am fairly sure that not many Americans even know that Maya still exist in the world … in Mexico and in Guatemala.   There are a few remote places that were not completely destroyed by Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century and later.  I’ve been to Mayan villages in Guatemala and seen shamans performing ancient rituals.  For an artist from a place as rooted in the present moment as New York, it’s an astounding thing to witness!  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 53

"Art and Beer," a roadside bar and sculpture garden in Baja del Sur, Mexico

“Art and Beer,” a roadside bar and sculpture garden in Baja del Sur, 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.

We do treat books surprisingly lightly in contemporary culture.  We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once.  Books and music share more in terms of resonance than just a present-tense correlation of heard note to read word.  Books need time to draw us in, it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them , because books are produced by books more than by writers; they’re a result of all the books that went before them.  Great books are adaptable; they alter with us as we alter in life, they renew themselves as we change and re-read them at different times in our lives.  You can’t step into the same story twice – or maybe it’s that stories. books, art can’t step into the same person twice, maybe it’s that they allow for our mutability, are ready for us at all times, and maybe it’s this adaptability, regardless of time, that makes them art, because real art (as opposed to more transient art, which is real too, just for less time) will hold us at all our different ages like it held all the people before us  and will hold all the people after us, in an elasticity and with a generosity that allow for all our comings and goings.  Because come then go we will, and in that order.

Ali Smith in Artful  

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you decide on the titles for your pastel paintings?

"Stigmata," soft pastel on sandpaper, 28" x 48"

“Stigmata,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 28″ x 48″

A:  Usually a title suggests itself over the course of the months I spend on a painting.  Sometimes it comes from a book I’m reading, from a piece of music, a film, bits of overheard conversation.  A title can come from anywhere, but finding the best one is key.  I like what Jean Cocteau says about this:

One title alone exists.  It will be, so it is.  Time conceals it from me.  How discover it, concealed by  a hundred others?  I have to avoid the this, the that.  Avoid the image.  Avoid the descriptive and the undescriptive.  Avoid the exact meaning and the inexact.  The soft, the hard.  Neither long nor short.  Right to catch the eye, the ear, the mind.  Simple to read and to remember.  I had announced several.  I had to repeat them twice and the journalists still got them wrong.  My real title defies me.  It enjoys its hiding place, like a child one keeps calling, and whom one believes drowned in the pond.    

Once I have the best title, I make sure it fits the painting exactly.  How I do that is difficult to explain.  It’s an intuitive process that involves adjusting colors, shapes, and images so that they fit the painting’s meaning, i.e., the meaning hinted at by the title.

Comments are welcome!        

Pearls from artists* # 17

Boat hull

Boat hull

* 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 better you know yourself, the more you will know when you are playing to your strengths and when you are sticking your neck out.  Venturing out of your comfort zone may be dangerous, yet you do it anyway because our ability to grow is directly proportional to an ability to entertain the uncomfortable.

… Another thing about knowing who you are is that you know what you should not be doing, which can save you a lot of heartaches and false starts if you catch it early on.

I was giving a lecture to students at Vassar not long ago.  Working with the students’ autobiographies, I invited a dance student, a music student who brought his saxophone, and an art student to join me on stage.  I asked the dancer to improvise some movement from a tuck position on the floor.  I asked the saxophone player to accompany the dancer.  And I asked the art student to assign colors to what they were doing.  I admit I was constructing a three-ring circus in the lecture hall.  But my goal was to bring the three students together by forcing them to work off the same page, and also to free them to discover how far they could go improvising on this simple assignment.

When I asked the art student to read out loud his color impressions, everyone in the hall was taken aback. He droned on and on about himself, feelings he’d had, stories about friends.  Not a word about color.  Finally I heard “limpid blue” come out of his mouth.  I waved my arms, signaling him to stop reading.

“Do you realize,” I said, “that you’ve just recited about five hundred words  in an assignment about color?  You’ve covered everything under the sun, and ‘limpid blue’ is the first time you’ve mentioned a color.  I’m not convinced you want to be a painter.”

As far as I was concerned, this young man was in “DNA denial.”  I gave him a painterly exercise and he gave me a text heavy response.  A young man with painting in his genes would be rattling off colors immediately.  Instead, his vivid use of language – limpid blue does not come in tubes – suggested that he really ought to be a writer.

It would be presumptious of me to think I had him pegged for a writer, not a painter, after that brief encounter.  But if I got him to reexamine what he’s built for, then he was a step or two ahead of most people.  

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit:  Learn it and Use it for Life

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.

Q: Do you have any rituals or a spiritual practice that you do before beginning your work in the studio?

Studio entrance

Studio entrance

A:  When I arrive at the studio in the morning it’s rare for me to immediately start working.  Usually I read  something art-related – magazines like Art in America, ARTnews, Tribal Arts, or exhibition catalogues from shows I’ve seen, books on art, on creativity, etc.  At the moment I’m re-reading The Gift, by Lewis Hyde.  As usual I am struggling to understand aspects of the art business and figure out what I need to do next to get my work seen by a wider audience.  The Gift reminds why I decided to make art in the first place.   It helps reconnect with forgotten parts of myself and is a much-needed  reminder of what I love about being an artist, especially in light of the business stuff that is becoming so complex and demanding of attention now.  Balancing the creative and business aspects of being an artist is a continual struggle.  Both are so important.  An artist needs an appreciative audience – very few artists devote their lives to art-making so that the work will remain in a closet – but I also believe this (from a note hand-written years ago and tacked to the studio wall):  “Just make the work.  None of the rest matters.”

Comments are welcome.

Q: How do you think your time in Bali will affect your work?

Barbara in her favorite sarong; photo by Donna Tang

Barbara in her favorite sarong; photo by Donna Tang

A: There is always a long gestation period as I reflect on the new experiences, sights, sounds, etc. after a trip. Bali is a fascinating place – the only Hindu outpost in the world’s most populous Muslim country – so I’m reading everything I can find. I’ve finished an historical novel, Love and Death in Bali, about the 1906 mass suicide of the royal family during the Dutch invasion. I’m slowly making my way through Bali: Sekala and Niskala, a densely packed book about the intricacies of Hinduism, rituals, and art, written with the help of our guide, Budi. In the short term I’m using more green pastels in my paintings. Amidst all of the tropical lushness, I must have seen thousands of shades of green. The volcano shapes in “Absence,” a pastel painting completed last week (see post of JUL 20), resulted from this trip. Other, more pronounced effects will probably show up later.