It is close to, probably past, the eighteen year anniversary of this blog. Hard to believe. Like a lot of other things these days.
There have been times when I thought I couldn’t write any more, as if I was done here. But then something would come up, urge me on. I started this blog when I was visiting my daughter Tamar in Los Angeles one Christmas vacation. I would get a three weeks break between semesters when teaching at the art college in Halifax. The strangest thing at first when spending Christmas in Los Angeles was seeing the palm trees decorated for the holiday and also not having to wear a heavy coat. No snow, never below freezing. Strange thing now though is it is record breaking warm weather here too much of the time. It’s Christmas eve as I write this and it was warm and sunny all day. No snow (only in photographs right now). But still, no palm trees here yet.
Tamar kept a blog back then and it seemed a good way for me to connect with her when I wasn’t there. It was (and is) a kind of conversation that was (and is) both private and public. She has since stopped her blog and moved on to novels.
There were a few years way back when some people ran something called “Christmas Dailies”. It was fun, writing and posting every day within a community doing the same. It was a lightweight, non-confrontational competition to keep up with other bloggers. I think I need that kind of prod to keep up that pace.
I am still erratic about entries but do intend to continue, probably in my “more or less” fashion. Stay tuned.
Lately I have been thinking about intention: is the intention of my work mine or the painting’s intention. I cannot impose my intention on my work but it is there as a background colour or rather flavour, always. Even when I like something I have done but it doesn’t work with my intention, I have to keep going. Demand the painting to my will. But not bend it. The painting will not inevitably bend. It has its own will. So we collaborate.
What I am looking for, need, in my work, is solidity and something that is more than its parts. A merging of marks, forms, colour into a world beyond the one I know. Therefore, I never know before how this will end, what the work will look like, be, when complete. So the completeness is the answer here. It’s not about finishing it. What completes the painting: is it me or what the painting demands. Some of each? So in truth, we collaborate.
On that thought of solidity and completeness, I have been layering the paint until I get it “right”. Because I am using paint with wax in it, it never really dries and can therefore peel if not stored properly. I need the density. So for now I am trying to make the illusion of density by mixing a lot of colours into the surface colour of the painting rather than layering the colours.
Of course, I can always ask myself why I need the density. My only honest answer is because I do.
Thinking my paintings are about me always seems simplistic. A few days ago I thought about this while in the shower. Like driving in the car, these are my best spots for revelations, the shower and the car. It is true I paint these paintings, I do make them, and without me they wouldn’t exist, yet they have a life of their own. Anyway, that day I saw clearly how my life path, how I have lived, is recreated in my creations. First I make a lot of chaos, then I organize it and my impetus is to make something transcendent, a painting that speaks directly without all the fuss that went into it. Something to set us, the viewer and me, free.
In the past before painting I have been mostly screen printing onto the canvas, photographs of people in my life where there has been friction, people with whom I need some emotional resolution. What I am currently doing is using xerox transfers of photographs where I have had positive experiences with my artwork. Such as the Saint Mary’s exhibit in 2016 or (as in the photo above, Jacinte Armstrong dancing in that gallery to my paintings) and other good gallery experiences. It definitely changes the tone of what I am doing when I am working. It’s a push forward, not a look back.
I am still using some collage pieces of fabric. The collage works with me and against me. I can use it as a starting point, the colour, patterns, shapes and move on from there. Or it can be an obstinate element that needs to be worked in, be more congenial, less disruptive. The collage elements often have a life of their own and usually need either to be partially or completely subdued. To get them to work with everything else in the painting. Sometimes it is hard to let go. They look good but don’t get along with the rest of the painting.
All the things you need to give up to get it right!
Recently I have been thinking a lot about totems. Some of the images I gravitate to creating in my paintings become towers of marks built upon each other, like figures in a totem. When I mentioned this to Phil at the Secord Gallery, he said the expression “low man on the totem pole” actually does not refer to someone low in the hierarchy. That sent me to the internet for researching totems.
Some sources say “low on the totem pole” actually is a good thing because the lowest figure is reserved for the most honored. Over the years, “low man on the totem pole” has been a figure of speech we use to say we are low in the hierarchy of where we work, live, play or worship. From what I could garner from the internet, a totem pole has no real hierarchy from top to bottom. The truth of the matter is the stacking order is often the reverse, where the energy of the community represented on the pole comes from the bottom, the so called “low man.”
A totem is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people. Belief in tutelary spirits and deities is not limited to indigenous peoples of the Americas but common to a number of cultures worldwide.
It makes sense that totems came to mind when I was working. Not just for the stacking poles I am sometimes creating, but for the sense of embodying the spirit and reverence I seek, the power coming from within. I want to take the ordinary experience of color and form and transform it. So then, listening to jazz or choral music and dancing around my studio with a stick of paint in my hand is a truly transcendent experience. It is my experience of my dream eventually shared with you.
Miles Davis died 29 years ago this week. This morning his son and nephew were talking about growing up with him on “q”. He was obsessed with music, always playing, even when listening to the radio or watching TV.
Davis’ “Porgy & Bess” was one of the very first jazz recording I purchased. I listened to it during many of the long nights when I was in art school. A classmate that year introduced me to Miles and to Nina who then became my best friends to help me through life in a fourth floor slum tenement apartment full of baby cock roaches. It was Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue” that kept me company. When I moved out, the man who lived next door (I had never met him during that year) told me the late night concerts were sometimes too much.
In NYC I knew a jazz musician who took me to a diner in the upper west side on Broadway where Miles Davis liked to have lunch. We were hoping he would be there, but sadly, it didn’t happen. I did go to see other jazz musicians, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, Ornette Colman. Usually I am an avid attendee at the Jazz Festival here in July. Missing that this year because of covid, I started using a headset to listen to music when working. Now I understand the kids and their headsets. The music sounds like I am right in the room with the musicians.
I did have a copy of Miles’ autobiography. I gave it to my then jazz piano teacher. I enjoyed the book, a good read, but nevertheless, was not a good jazz student. Too much education in classical music. I just couldn’t make the leap.
Thinking back on those days of jazz concerts in NYC compared to my quiet life now, I feel very lucky I had that opportunity and happy for my headset.
Romeo, my four year old dog, is, in dog years, now considered a young adult. He is a very friendly dog. If I gave him a cell phone, he would be on it all the time. As it is, being a dog, he has to contend with my scheduling his social/play life. I’m pretty good at scheduling my own life. Mostly it centers around time in my studio and time with Romeo. I am obsessed with both. My comforts and joys.
For the past year I have been working on an indigo triptych. I want it to put in my living room over my piano because that is the only place I have room for a large painting and because most people seem to be afraid of what they call “dark” colors. The indigo looks black and that is scary to many. To me it is very rich. Deep yes, and possibly disturbing.
But the essence of this saga, working on this painting, is that even though, when I thought it was done (several times), it never really felt right. I did put it in my living room last week as I felt I needed to take it out of my studio to really see it. That worked. I did see the problem: it looked like every other painting I could do. I am at a point now where I want a new cliff to step off, to experience what I don’t know, not what I do. To be uncomfortable. That would make me comfortable.
As if anyone really knows. But we try; I try, keep going. A friend in Vancouver sent me a link to a fascinating and inspiring documentary on “How Art Began”, written and produced by the British sculptor Antony Gormley. Gormley goes deep into ancient caves to see the drawings on the wall. Some were created as much as 80 million years ago.
His point is, in other words, there is always art. We need it. Art is intrinsic to being human. It’s our mark. We need it not just as a personal record of being here but as a connection to all that we cannot know. To what makes us bigger than what we can see and touch. Or speaking abstractly, absolute truth. We create on the relative level to touch the absolute as best we can. It’s about connection. We become fully ourselves as we express the joy of being.
Gormley is an esteemed sculptor. His works have an eerie power. But when he looked at one group of cave paintings, he said they made him uncomfortable. They were aggressive. He likened them to Picasso’s paintings, with distortions of the human body, especially females. I’m sure he would say the same for De Kooning’s paintings of women. I once had a student complain about the subject matter because it is aggressive, denigrates women, she thought. I find them beautiful. Aggression can be a useful energy in creative activities, it can transform its subject into something beautiful, help others to see their way through their own feelings. If art really is about truth, strives to tell the truth, we cannot deny that aggression is another energy in how we mark our world. It has power to create, to go beyond destruction. It has the power to be a true and positive reflection of our existence.
Recently a friend who knows more than me about the business of art told me I would sell more paintings if I raised my prices. He meant, I think, that collectors like to be proud of paying a lot of money for a painting, think its value is related to the price. Maybe. I don’t know. But it does make me wonder, once again, for whom am I painting.
Saying raising my prices makes my work more appealing is almost, but not quite, like telling me I would sell more if I painted landscapes. Or still-lives. Even though I have good drawing skills, I would probably be pretty bad at either as I have no desire to do that. And second, my paintings have been abstract since I first left art school many many years ago. Because that is where my passion is: it’s what I want to do. I also want people to see my work. And not just the wealthy. Selling more would be nice as long as it didn’t compromise my integrity.
Of course I would like a broader audience for my work. I’ve always had a fantasy that some important curator will notice my work and promote it so that it can be shown in museums everywhere and be in prestigious art magazines and galleries. All this would happen just because I keep painting. I’m good at dreaming. Unfortunately not so good at the self promotion.
As I’ve said many times, I need to sell to buy more art supplies. I do go through supplies very quickly as I paint a lot. But the thrill of knowing someone is enjoying a painting of mine is definitely indescribable. Then again, if I sold more paintings because I raised my prices, I would have more money to paint more and then could also give my paintings away more often as I wouldn’t need to sell so many. Sound good to me.
I live in a very idyllic setting, surrounded by pine trees, beside a fast running brook, facing a big peaceful lake with wonderful neighbours who are far enough away I can’t see them but they are always there for me when I need them. I haven’t been inside a store in at least six weeks and don’t miss it. A walk on the road is always a pleasure but it is not the same as going to a park. Hopefully soon.