Cutting it short, or not

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Romeo likes to make up games for himself. Lately he has been pushing his ball over the edge of the dock into the lake. Then he tries to retrieve it without getting wet, just butt up, sticking his nose down as far as he can. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

Watching him, I keep thinking: Romeo, there are no shortcuts. Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to struggle, just catch the ball or paint the perfect painting right away. Not get my feet wet.

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Seven years of change

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At the Harrington Brown Gallery in Memphis, TN, March 2011

 

Seven years ago, in 2011, I had an exhibition at the Harrington Brown Gallery in Memphis, Tennessee. It was one of those shows where I took a major right (or left if you prefer) turn after that. Seeing my work on the walls outside my studio is always educational, sometimes upsetting, other times exciting. This particular time I could see very clearly that I had been painting myself into a corner. Every painting used the same motif as a solution to whatever was not right. The conclusion was the same, that is, the use of a circle image to “fix” the painting.

When I came home, back to my studio, I knew something major had to change. It was a struggle for several months. On the other hand, some of those paintings still linger with me as exceptional. That, I think, is because I was searching for something fresh, pertinent, important. A new way of solving visual issues. That way of working is always difficult yet extremely rewarding. After a while, I did become comfortable with this newer way of working, resolving painting issues.

Lately I have been feeling that same intense energy, the desire for change, to challenge, to be honest in my work. Now,  in truth, I have always been interested in and studied things unseen: dreams, meditation, astrology, numerology and such. I suppose this kind of interest also aligns with my need for abstract painting.

Today I read in an astrology blog that Uranus, the planet associated with change, has moved into Taurus, an earthy, grounded sign, and will be there for seven years. The writer suggested looking back at the past seven years to see what has been the focus of change. In seven years, again, all will be different. More than any other astrological transit I have witnessed, this one felt the most true to my life. So very clear. And now, the beginning of more change, more excitement and challenge.

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Rembrandt and me

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I am an abstract painter. Right from the first day, abstraction spoke my language. I never wanted to paint otherwise. For me, it talks to the inexpressible part of being human. Not being attached to objects, it makes sense out of the unknown. Forcing me to be open to what I don’t know. Literally, through the paint itself, it educates me. Teaches me to experience, to be open.

Yet I feel closer to Rembrandt than to Pollack. Don’t get me wrong here: I do love Pollack’s paintings. And de Kooning, Rothko, Kline. There are many abstract artists whose work inspires me, yet Rembrandt is my heart. I went to his home in Amsterdam once, felt his presence, his intensity, a stillness. The light in the house was just like in his paintings. It felt as if his work was carved out of the very air in the rooms. I felt so reverent, I didn’t even take a photograph. But I do have the memory of being there. And I think about that house often.

That quality, of being created from an inner environment beyond thought, transforming and illuminating is my search as well. Remember that haunting, old saying: “There is nothing new under the sun.” If so, it just may be the way the same “old” thing is put together. Rembrandt put it together in a way that tells a very contemporary story.

The above painting was the first oil painting I did before going to art school. I can see here the influences of Rembrandt’s brushwork, his use of light and colors. I was using what I had at the time, a black and white photograph. This heightened the contrast, drama. When I was in high school, I would visit his paintings in the National Gallery in Washington. I identified with the Girl with the Broom. We had a Dutch door in our house, where the door was split in the middle, opened in two sections. The girl with the broom was me: leaning on the lower part of our door, brooding as she held onto her broom, looking directly out at the passing scene before her, thinking, longing, imagining.

I have since read that this painting was done by an apprentice of Rembrandt’s, possibly Carel Fabritius. Rembrandt approved by putting his signature to it. Does that make it less truthful, less powerful to me? I’d have to see the original painting again to answer that. Reproductions are not the same. But I would hope not. A good painting is good. Truth and beauty come in many forms.

Still, I’m not sure how this affects my work. Probably there are many ways to tell your personal truth. Mine is in non-referential, abstract painting. If I were to meet Rembrandt today, would we talk about abstract painting? Would his work be non-representational? Tell me, Rembrandt.

 

 

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Next, again and again and again

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Actually, I do not agree with Michelangelo when he said: “No great work of art is ever finished.” I titled my exhibit at the Orange Gallery “Next, Again”. Originally I planned to call it just “Next” because that’s what I do, look for what is next when I work. But recently it was pointed out to me that I had already named some paintings “Next”. So I added “Again”. Because that is how I work: what’s next, again and again and again.

It may seem at times as if I could go on working a painting forever, but at some point there is nothing more I feel I need to do to a particular piece. No matter how long I’ve been working on it: a few weeks or months or years (really, sometime it take years!). It feels good in my gut, in the center of my body. That’s where I know it is finished.

Time to move on to what’s next.

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Tale of the dog

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When I went to pick Romeo up from where he stayed while I was away, I was greeted with: “Oh, hi Mom. Nice to see you. But I love Bob!” And into Bob’s lap he went with hugs and kisses. “You leave me, I’ll show you,” he seemed to say. I’m really glad he had a good time. It makes it easier for both of us. And after just a few hours together he was close with me again.

Then Romeo had to claim his territory here at home. Right away he needed to take his stuffies out for some fresh air. He almost always has to have a stuffed toy in his mouth when he goes out the door. He has his favorites, will look around for just the right one to take out with him. The first day home he went out with one toy, would leave it there, come back, get another, take it out, leave it there, and come back for another. All the while with a big smile and wagging tail.

Usually, before bed, I go out with Romeo and gather up his toys that have wandered out the door. The first evening, to make his point more emphatically, he grabbed his Teddy from my hands and ran off into the woods. And left him there for the night. But I still can’t find him. I suppose the bear wants to hide in the woods until the snow melts.

It really is nice to be home!

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Hamilton and me

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After eight packed days in Ottawa, I came here to NYC for some rest and entertainment. Last night I went to see a Broadway play: Hamilton. It is pertinent, a message for today. And it is fun, good music, great acting, wonderful choreography. My daughter won four tickets in a raffle. Second row seats, quite the treat. The show was right in my lap!

My best memories of going to Broadway plays was when I was young, probably around eight to ten. My aunt Paula would take me. I remember seeing Guys and Dolls and Porgy and Bess with her. We must have been visiting NYC. She lived in New Rochelle with her husband. He had a pharmacy and she organized the store.

Once when I was visiting them, I was running up the stairs of the apartment building and tripped. The result was a seriously bloody nose. I still have the slightly deviated septum, but thankfully only I notice it. I stayed with her after I had my wisdom teeth pulled when I was in my sophomore year of university. And she drove me into Bethesda to get weighed at the drugstore there when I was about twelve and she thought I was gaining weight. To me it was a kind gesture but fostered a lifelong emotional need to watch the scale, to bring her back.

Paula was the kind of aunt every young girl wants. Supportive and warm to me. I know she had some problems with one sister, but not with me. She had no children and indulged me with kindness. I loved visiting her. And I did whenever possible. When I lived on Broome Street in Manhattan, she came and helped paint my new loft. I was in my early 40s; she was 72 at the time. Later, when she had a stroke and was in a coma, I travelled to the hospital in Westchester to visit. I was told she wouldn’t know I was there, but she did. When I moved away from standing by the bed, she was visibly upset. She did recover somewhat and was moved to a nursing home in Cleveland to be near her step-daughter. We corresponded for a while, her letters being almost illegible, the writing very scratchy and running downhill off the paper. I assume a nurse read her my letters. Gradually they became less and then stopped. I was not told when she died. Another sad part of my friendship with my aunt was when she needed to go into a nursing home, her step-daughter assumed Paula had given me money and asked me to return it. She hadn’t. But it was hard for her family to understand that we simply liked each other, enjoyed being together.

One other happy memory of musical theatre was when I was sixteen. It was summer, probably August, and I went to see Porgy and Bess again. This time in an amphitheater in Washington, D.C. with a boy I had been eager to date for a while. It was a magical evening, a perfect first date.

When I was in art school, a fellow student introduced me to Miles Davis’ recording of Porgy and Bess. I would play it all through the night sometimes. When I moved out, I met my next door neighbor who gently told me there were times when it was more than he wanted to hear. I still love listening to that recording, often when I am painting. Today I’ve been listening to the music from Hamilton, another happy memory.

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Beginner’s mind

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“I Think I Might Be Dreaming, no. 5″; 48″ x 48”; oil & collage on canvas

Several years ago I read that Michelangelo on his deathbed said: “It is a pity I am dying when I am just beginning to know my craft.” He was not young, had been working at his art for a long time. I have an old, worn paperback book about him and his sayings, yet I still wonder how so many pithy statements managed to be saved in print. I am grateful they were. It is all so pertinent to the mind of an artist and the practice of making art. There is always so much to learn.

I just ended an eight day stay in Ottawa. A mixture of work and play yet all pleasurable. First the vernissage for my exhibit at the Orange Gallery on Thursday evening. Then I gave a talk about my work on Saturday. I taught two workshops focusing on colour, one on Sunday and Monday, the second on Wednesday and Thursday. Thursday after the class I flew to NYC where I am now, will be until Monday. Then back to Nova Scotia and back to painting. In between the art events I went swimming, took saunas and steam baths and soaked up family.

So then, what did I learn from this intense week. A lot about listening, looking, seeing how other people think, about their work, about their lives. My life has always been focused on my work. I’ve been lucky to be able to do what I want but also I do it at the sacrifice of other things. The main other thing is security. I choose to jump into the unknown not only visually but also to be able to make the visual product. It is important to take chances with painting, try to extend beyond what is familiar. After all, why do it if it isn’t a challenge, if I’m not learning more about my craft.

It’s a balancing act. Much of what I need to make my art is beyond my means but I can’t do anything without it. So I do it.

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