My plan with this new website/blog is to post my thesis writing from grad school and also, to write about works in progress or other thoughts or ideas related to making my artwork. Today, I’m writing about recently trying to paint again.
I say ‘try’ to paint again because it seems as though I’ve forgotten how. Or maybe it’s a mix of things. I know how and I’m trying to not know how. I realize that sounds conflicting and it is. I’m trying to paint like I used to at two other times in my life when painting was something I felt like I could do. However, if I’m honest with myself, it has always been a struggle. And yet, doing it, has always felt completely natural, as though the process was as much a part of me as breathing.
What is a history of an artist? How does it all start? We usually start as every other kid who draws or paints in art education classes or another way. And, then, usually when others are starting new hobbies, we continue on and take more classes and possibly even take college classes. Some of us become art majors in college and then, after usually do something else. But, there are a few who continue to make their work and possibly pursue a higher degree such as an Master of Fine Arts or even a Ph. D. And with all this education and practice in making our work, we know how to do it and how to teach it as well. So, the question I’m wondering, is how do I go back to when I didn’t know as much? How do I go back to a place of pure creativity wherein the process leads the way and the mindful education thoughts are not a constant? How do I start to paint and just follow the paint rather than how each mark interacts and leads the eye and how the composition works as a whole?
In my early life, creativity came in the form of experimentation. I would often blend things, from the food at dinner to all the things in the bathroom, concocting my own mix of foods, or toothpaste or mouthwash. The end results were not important. The process was the joy.
The summer after fifth grade when I was about ten years old, I took a course in darkroom photography. I was excited by the process of taking pictures, developing the film and then, watching the magic of paper development. I continued to take pictures and dreamed of working in a darkroom again. In college, I was able to take another course and I was in love once again.
In seventh grade, I really started to enjoy painting in my art education class. For birthday and Christmas presents, I started receiving art supplies for this new hobby and would often set up a little studio in my room. I recall getting lost in the process of creativity but also feeling frustrated by what I didn’t yet know how to do: composition and drawing perspective correctly. Art education classes spent a little time in this area, but I didn’t get to really know how to do these things until becoming an art major in college. I’d like to say that I figured it out, that the instruction I received and the many hours of working had a result that I was happy with. At that point in time, making art was about the process and even with the best instruction, I struggled with making work that didn’t follow my process and instead, followed life. Drawing or painting was not about replicating reality. Of course, learning perspective and measuring details was part of it, but for this creative soul, I found little joy in it. I knew that learning it could be done. Anyone can learn to draw. It is a technical skill that can be learned. Just as anyone can learn how to use a camera and how to print a photograph.
Even though I was frustrated with the details of drawing with proper perspective and composition, what I learned in those exercises contributed greatly to my ability to make work that was non-representational. In my painting, the canvas was not a place to recreate life. It was a place to express ideas. And, knowing composition and two-dimensional design was a necessity in making my work successful.
In college my love for painting and for photography allowed my studies to focus on both while I also pursued an art history degree. In my mind at the time, painting was something I could always do while photography, was something I could only do while I had access to a darkroom. So my primary work the last year was in photography. After graduating, I had a dream of being an artist and showing my work. I decided to continue with photography and built a darkroom in my parent’s basement. I joined a co-operative art gallery and starting showing and selling my work. But, it was always photography. And, while I loved making my work in this way: with composition and design an obvious and intuitive consideration, I missed painting.
The summer before my last year of college I decided to focus entirely on painting. My dad and I turned a small barn in the backyard into a studio. I spent hours every day working. My goal was to paint and lose myself in the process, to not over think anything and to make whatever I needed to or wanted to in the moment. The results were a mix of good and bad. Some pieces became favorites and hang to this day. Others were not as well composed and lacked direction. Art is a mix of these things: the intuitive creativity blended with composition, direction and or meaning. And, meaning can be suggestive or descriptive and direct. At the time, the meaning wasn’t as important as the process. However, I learned over time, in school and after, that to make my work effective, I had to pay attention to how the composition contributed to the meaning and or interpretation of the work by others. At that time in life, I didn’t care as much if anyone else understood any of it. I was making art for art sake: for myself and the process that fulfilled something inside. However, when I started to make work to sell it and show in art galleries (with the hope of selling it), I changed the way I made my work.
For photography, I had goals of being expressive as well as compositionally sound. In the early years after undergrad, I worked on making black and white photography to sell in the art galleries. I was successful in that most of what I made did sell and I had several shows in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Georgia. I felt as though the work was fulfilling me in a creative way but also, in a smart way: that everything I learned about composition and design in college art courses had finally clicked. After a few years, though, I felt an itch to do more. I started to wonder if my work was saying anything or doing anything other than serving an aesthetic need for hanging something decorative on someone’s living room wall. In my mind, this body of work was expressive of conceptual ideas: of formal qualities, tones and textures found in the details of plants and flowers. The parts photographed were not the whole object but rather a close view. This abstracted view was of interest because it cut out the whole meaning and obvious interpretation. I was interested in showing parts to the whole (something we learn in two-dimensional design, principles of design, figure ground relationships, etc). I was looking at other photographers who had similar ideas: Karl Blossfeldt, Imogen Cunningham, and Edward Weston. While I was content with this work, I felt the need to do more. I was also wondering if I could make work that wasn’t just aesthetic. I wanted to make work that was thought-provoking, something beyond ‘beautiful’.
Painting hadn’t happened since the summer before graduating. I put it on the back burner, thinking that someday I would do it again. My focus had shifted to photography and making a living selling my work. But, as time went by, I noticed something was missing. In an attempt to fix this, I discovered Liquid Light. As a liquid emulsion, the mixture could be painted onto any surface and then, be exposed and processed similarly to a regular black and white print. While my research showed ways to make the emulsion a perfect form on the surface, my interest was in doing the opposite. For the first time in a while, I found myself making work in a creative and spontaneous way. I loved the process. The liquid emulsion could be applied with a paint brush on to watercolor paper. These brush marks brought back my passion of painting on canvas and the resulting photographs were expressive of the marks as well as the content within. Instead of working with plants and flowers, my negatives came from the land around my home in northeast Indiana. I was drawn to older forms of architecture in this farming landscape. Still hanging on my walls are two pieces from this body of work: “Grain Silos in the Snow” from 2003.
One aspect that I loved in these new photographs came as a result of the way I made them. Photography is a technical achievement that is difficult to do incorrectly once you know how to do it. And, with negatives as the original image, copies can be made almost indefinitely. Using Liquid Light the way I did, when I brushed it across the surface of the paper, the marks could not be repeated. I didn’t want to repeat an image once it was made. It was a one time thing: a monoprint. I also enjoyed how the surface of the image would change in development, washing and drying allowed inconsistencies that were out of my control. I could not create all of it on my own. I was thrilled that the process had a part in the final outcome. Making this work was a mix of technology and the unexpected.
Thinking back to 2003, I was an eager young artist and my goals were met for the most part. However, it became clear that I needed to do something else to make a living and the natural option was to be a commercial photographer. I started a business taking senior, family and wedding pictures in Huntington, Indiana, my hometown. I found great joy in doing this work and as it grew to be more successful, I made less artwork. Not making art for a few years had an effect on me. I suppose it mixed with other life happenings and at some point near turning thirty, I realized that making art was something I really needed to do. I needed to paint and I needed to make the work I’d always wanted to but feared for some reason. In 2007, I taught a college photography class for the first time and found myself excited at the prospect of doing both: making my work and teaching for a living. I applied to graduate programs and thankfully, was accepted into the one that most spoke to my soul. From 2008-2010, I worked on my Master of Fine Arts in Electronic Integrated Arts at Alfred University in Alfred, NY. It was here that I found my way and faced the fears of doing what I wanted: to make the art work that I needed to make and have it be accepted in this new art world.
Painting returned to my life just before going to grad school. I turned a guest room in my apartment into a studio and got to work again. I was tired of thinking about what to paint and just let myself go. The works contributed to my application to grad school in a time-based video installation. In grad school, painting was not my focus, but I continued to do it when possible. My primary work was in time based media: photography and video. As I got used to making work that moved literally across the screen, each mark I made had a moving element and became one part to the whole of a time based video piece. I think this challenged my painting in that I was used to my marks moving continuously, but on canvas, they stopped.
My paintings became more about gesture and movement, the marks were faster and more of the moment. I would make a painting and move on to the next, not spending a lot of time on each piece, as if time would change what I made if it lasted longer than one session. I finally started to make work that I enjoyed: both for the process and the end composition near the end of grad school. One painting that I felt was successful combined paint and drawing with oil pastels and layers of gloss medium between each. The piece was layered and full of marks moving in and out of spaces in the composition. There was an implied landscape, but nothing too descriptive. Thinking back to how my graduate work evolved, the painting was very similar to my video work. I was interested in subtlety, mark making, gestures, movement through space and between objects. The only difference was time: one happened in time and the other through time.
After graduate school, I moved to eastern Washington to teach full-time at university level: digital art, photography, design, video art, performance and art history. I lived in a nice little house and worked on my new career quite intensely. I still felt the need to paint and set up a studio in my basement. From time to time, I would spent hours working on canvases trying to reconnect with the piece I’d made at Alfred. A few of them worked, but I didn’t feel satisfied. I had trouble getting in to making my work with the same intensity I had in grad school. My life was full of deadlines, pressure to teach and continue to make my other work when I had the time (which was not often). So, painting got further and further away. Then, it became something I did when I was stressed and needed to express myself in ways that were difficult to do in photography or making a new video art piece. While I did make work in those media, I longed to be in my painting the way I had in the past. But, it never quite happened.
Two years ago my life changed significantly when I found myself in love and planning my wedding. I no longer felt angst or emotion about what might happen next. I packed up my house and moved to the Cayman Islands with my husband. I started to make my work again and let go of all the stress from teaching. Letting that go took about a year, but as recently as this past Christmas, I found myself feeling creative again as I made new work. In the months leading up to this new website, I began to ponder whether or not I wanted to try to paint again. With spring’s arrival, the outdoor screened in porch seemed to be calling to me. I searched through my things in my parent’s basement and found my old easel, saved canvases and paint brushes. I bought myself five tubes of oil paint: blue, yellow, red, green and burnt umber. And, last week, I started to apply them to the canvas.
The feeling is like no other, really. I was instantly drawn into the process and the feel of the paint in the brush touching the surface of the canvas. I made marks and for a little while, let go. However, not for long. I realized that I was trying to make something representational. The blues and greens mixed and the red and yellow started to look like a sunset. I was irritated and annoyed and yet felt the drive to continue. I am out of practice. I am in a known and unknown place. I have the past and the present constantly in my mind. What I’ve done and what I could do if I just let myself. No pressure, of course, and yet, it is there. I have yet to break through that and to accept the moment and, to let time lead that moment to whatever “it” may be.