On a drifty Manhattan stroll
The kind that unearths magical treasures
I made a right turn off of Houston
And as it became Third Avenue
I came upon this old art store
That creaked hello
Its warped wooden shelves
Held new paints
A little dusty from the old building
But whose colors were deeper
Than I’d ever seen before
And at the back of the store
Up a narrow stairway
Was a tiny room
And behind a long table stood three people
Who could get me any paper I desired
Paper with designs
To collage with
Hot press, cold press
100 gram, 600 gram paper
To draw and paint on
Any kind of paper I’d ever want
Templates from heaven
And over my right shoulder
Was a tall window
Overlooking the glorious city
That has held this little room
Tenderly in its arms
All these years
And as I hugged
My rolled up package of paper
And went back downstairs
The old stairs seemed to gently whisper
“Come back soon,
We’ll keep each other alive”
And stepping outside
Third Avenue seemed more spacious
And I took a deep breath
As the world
Lovingly wrapped up
By three kind artists
At the top of the world.
“Art Supplies From Heaven,“ by Judith Ellen Sanders, published in “Metropolitan Diary,” NY Times, April 6, 2014
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?
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.
Comments are welcome!
A: I believe my first sale was “Bryan’s Ph.D.” I made it in 1990 as one of several small paintings created to improve my skills at rendering human hands in pastel. I had recently left the Navy and was building a career as a portrait artist. Bryan, my late husband, was often my model for these studies, not only because it was convenient, but because he had such beautiful hands.
In 1990 Bryan was working on his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Maryland. In this painting he is drawing a diagram that illustrates a theoretical point about “international public goods,” the subject of his research. He was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair in our backyard in Alexandria, VA. I still own the chair and the house. I photographed his hands close-up and then created the painting. I don’t remember which of Bryan’s cameras I used, but it was one that took 35 mm film; perhaps his Nikon F-2. Somewhere I must still have the negative and the original reference photo.
“Bryan’s Ph.D.” is 11″ x 13 1/2″ and it sold for $500 at a monthly juried exhibition at The Art League in Alexandria. I have not seen it since 1990. (Above is a photograph of “Bryan’s Ph.D.” from my portfolio book).
Not long ago the owner contacted me, explaining that she had received the painting as a gift from her now ex-husband. She was selling it because it evoked bitter memories of her divorce. Her phone call was prompted by uncertainty about the painting’s value now. She had a likely buyer and needed to know what price to charge.
I was saddened because I have so many beautiful memories of this particular painting and of an idyllic time in my life with Bryan. He was on a leave of absence from the Pentagon to work on his dissertation, while I was finished with active duty. At last I was a full time artist, busily working in the spare bedroom that we had turned into my first studio.
My conversation with the owner was a reminder that once paintings are let out into the world, they take on associations that have nothing to do with the personal circumstances surrounding their creation. In short, what an artist creates solely out of love, stands a good chance of not being loved or appreciated by others. This is one reason to only sell my work to people I select personally. I ended the telephone conversation hoping that “Bryan’s Ph.D.” fares better in its new home.
Comments are welcome!
A: I am in the very early stages of a large pastel painting. I have never painted any of these figures before and they originated in different parts of the world. The bird (left) is from the Brooklyn Museum’s store, although it was hand carved in Guatemala. The standing figure is carved wood with beautiful painted details. It was a lucky find on a trip to Panajachel, Guatemala. The armadillo (red and grey) was made by one of my favorite Mexican folk artists (now deceased) and I believe it’s one of the last pieces he completed. It is a papier mâché figure that I found in a small shop in Mexico City. The figure on the upper right is a wooden mask bought from a talkative and talented artist at a hotel in Kandy, Sri Lanka. It depicts nagas (cobras), although you can’t tell that yet in the painting.
Comments are welcome!
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?
A: My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive.
First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter. I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice.
My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work. As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too.
One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next. Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material.
In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows. Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.
In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera. In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.
Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper. They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York. Now I go to Duggal. Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.
Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper. The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead.
Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting.
Comments are welcome!
* 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 BOX OF PASTELS
I once held on my knees a simple wooden box
in which a rainbow lay dusty and broken.
It was a set of pastels that had years before
belonged to the painter Mary Cassatt,
and all of the colors she’d used in her work
lay open before me. Those hues she’d most used,
the peaches and pinks, were worn down to stubs,
while the cool colors – violet, ultramarine –
had been set, scarcely touched, to one side.
She’d had little patience with darkness, and her heart
held only a measure of shadow. I touched
the warm dust of those colors, her tools,
and left there with light on the tips of my fingers.
Ted Kooser in Art and Artists: Poems, edited by Emily Fragos
Comments are welcome!
Q: Your new work explores relationships to figures through the medium of soft pastel. What prompted this departure from photography?
A: Actually it was the other way around. As I’ve mentioned, I was a maker of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings long before I became a photographer (1986 vs. 2002). However, the photos in the “Gods and Monsters” series were meant to be photographs in their own right, i.e., they were not made to be reference material for paintings. in an interesting turn of events, in 2007 I started a new series, “Black Paintings,” which uses the “Gods and Monsters” photographs as source material. Collectors who have been following my work for years tell me the new series is the strongest yet. For now I’m enjoying where this work is leading. The last three paintings are the most minimal yet and I’ve begun thinking of them as the “Big Heads.” There is usually a single figure (“Stalemate” has two) that is much larger than life size. “Epiphany” (above, left) is an example. All of them are quite dramatic when seen in person, especially with their black wooden frames and mats.
Comments are welcome!