As a multi media artist, I enjoy exploring various art materials, combining media in unexpected ways, and working in many genres. I have a low threshhold for boredom and repetition and I like to move freely from one style of art to another, as a brief perusal of my website will testify. The challenge comes in keeping my body of work from resembling the machinations of a crazed gnat, jumping at random from one thing to the next.
To address this issue, I have worked in a series format for the past twenty years, choosing a large enough topic of interest that I can create many pieces that relate to each other as I explore the challenge I have set up. This pattern of art-making keeps one’s thinking fresh and one’s body of work consistent, yet diverse and interesting. Over the years, I have produced the Tapestry series, the Icon series, the Flow series, and the Noir series, among others.
My most recent series, under the working title 30×30, is a group of paintings on 30×30 gallery wrapped canvasses that explore mixed media and metal leaf combined with acrylic painting techniques. Each piece is executed in a limited though colorful palette with mixed media inclusions such as oil bar and oil-based pastel resists, hand made collage papers and raised textural passages, with an eye towards strong composition. Each piece in this series also features gold, copper and/or silver leaf, partially obscured and layered color and papers. Pictured on my website are several examples from the 30×30 series, including It is Written, Rapt in Red, Perique, Aurora, and Silver Lining. The latest piece I have done that loosely fits with the others, Sultana, is actually 30×40, the exception that proves the ever-evolving nature of my work, the stretching beyond what is working to be further challenged.
Before I worked on this series, I found it easier to work on paper, preferring 300 # d’Arches cold press and Strathmore Aquarius. I wanted to teach myself to work effectively on canvas and not to sacrifice any of the mixed media and visual techniques I had developed over the years as an art on paper artist. I also like the clean lines of a gallery wrapped canvas, and the immediacy of the imagery unencumbered by glass and framing. I am buying a new 30×30 canvas today, intent on continuing this series until I have gleaned all I can from it and exhausted the internal supply of images, color palettes, and provocative titles that are floating around in my head.
As artists, we must develop the ability to deal with rejection without losing heart about our work, or worse, personalizing it. Rejection comes to us in many forms- your rejection may arrive in a self-addressed, stamped envelope, declining your entry in a juried show, or a gallery owner may tell you tactfully that your work is not a fit for them, or a random person may make unkind or even insulting remarks about your work within earshot of you at an opening. For some artists, close friends and family may not be supportive about your art making, or the direction you are taking with it. I have endured many of these unwelcome, soul-squashing experiences, and here is the factual and emotional enlightenment I have achieved through enduring and processing them, for what it is worth.
1. When you are rejected for a juried show, this decision is usually one person’s informed opinion. It is a truism that another juror, given the same entries, would have selected a different collection for the exhibition. Also at play may be a running tally that is playing out in the juror’s mind as he looks through the entries, “This landscape is really good, but the show seems heavy on that genre already.” “Oh, here’s another abstract that looks like a workshop piece from______. Can’t take another one.” Most jurors are conscientious about selecting the best possible show, as most are artists themselves, but as human beings they still bring with them their notions and preferences. I once actually heard a juror say that he was trying to pick a ‘southern-looking’ show because it was for the Tennessee Watercolor Society. How disappointing! I’ve never seen so many paintings of barns in one place in my whole life. These things are outside of an artist’s control. What we must do is to present the best, most recent work we can do and try not to take it too personally if we are declined.
2. When you are approaching potential galleries for selling your work, do your homework first. Look around for places where you could actually imagine your work displayed, and never approach a gallery owner to look at your work without making an appointment. You should be neither the cheapest nor the most expensive artist there. Your work should be different enough that you aren’t a repeat of other artists who are showing there, yet still consistent with the mission of the gallery. You should present a cohesive body of work that represents one style in which you are competent and engaged, but still have room to grow. If you are declined, feel free to ask respectfully for feedback, and really listen to any advice or criticism they may offer to help improve your chances in the future.
3. There have been times when I have heard a random viewer at a show or gallery making unkind or uninformed remarks about my work. I usually just let this slide, because everyone has a right to their own opinion. If they are especially persistent, loud or unkind, I may put on my most disarming smile and say something like “Pray tell me, how would you paint this differently?” or “I’m curious, are you basing your comments on a critical evaluation of the merits of this piece or is this your opinion?” Sometimes I offer to explain my philosophy of creativity or I give them a mini-artist statement, always couching my responses positively.
4. If your family and friends are not supportive, first try to understand the reasoning behind their reticence. Perhaps you have undertaken too many projects in the past without following through, and this new art thing seems like the treadmill in the basement that is currently being used as a clothes drying rack. Maybe they feel threatened by changes in your behavior as you begin to read and talk about unfamiliar ideas. Maybe the monetary investment necessary to fund classes, equipment ands supplies, etc. is troubling to them. Maybe they resent the time you are spending in your pursuit that takes away some of their access to you. Whatever the reason, your listening to and crediting their objections will help you converse with them without hostility about your need to do this. If you ask for their help and support in setting up a home studio area or blocking out time to work or budgeting for expenditures, you are more likely to get it than if you resentfully soldier forward alone. In the end, you may have to be your own best friend and supporter for a time until everyone understands that you are needful of a creative outlet and that this will help you become a more complete and joyful person.
5. Finally, if you are an artist, you can no more separate yourself from creative expression than you can from food, water, rest, and shelter. It is a necessity for your wholeness and well-being. It will help you be a better, more perceptive and generous person. Through art, you will explore and give voice to thoughts and passions that go beyond the expressive capacity of words. So what if you didn’t get into a certain show or gallery? Keep making art! So what if your piece didn’t sell this time? Keep making art! So what if your homies don’t get it? Keep making art! Keep making art and it will become a force for good in your life.
Call it a weekend party and sleepover for women baby boomer artists. Call it a gathering of art professionals who enjoy each other’s companionship and critique. Call it an exchange of new ideas, new materials and new ways of thinking about art-making. All of these things and more were enjoyed recently by the Paper Dolls at a weekend retreat at Pam’s Red Nest Studio near Cookeville, TN. “Paper Dolls” is an apt name for the group because, as artists and signature members of the Tennessee Watercolor Society, one of our primary materials is paper. Paper has many diverse manifestations in terms of weight, texture, color, surface finish, and fiber content, and its artistic uses are just as varied. It can be painted, punched, stenciled, stamped, drawn on, torn or cut, layered, glued, sanded, folded, creased and crumpled, sized with medium or gesso, and attached to other surfaces. At Red Nest, we experimented with two new types of paper for many of us: lineco- a thin bookbinder’s tissue that is used between pages of text, and a roll of blank deli paper typically used as sandwich wrap at Subway. Using whatever paints and texturing techniques pleased us, we each came away with several beginnings that can later be completed and attached to canvas or board, or presented under glass in the traditional manner for water media. We also came away creatively refreshed and stimulated. I can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with, based on our beginnings!
Validation for an artist may take many forms-getting a gallery show, winning an award, selling work and cultivating collectors, and just being able to complete the work that comes across the studio table. For a teacher of artists, validation comes as testimony from your students that they are integrating what you have taught them to develop their own style for their own purposes. And hopefully, they also learn to treat themselves with the kindness and patience that a friend would show and give themselves permission to “mess up”. I recently received an e-mail from Cielo Sand, a skilled photographer who attended several six-week sessions of my Experimental Acrylic classes to develop painting skills for enhancing her digital designs.
In part, Cielo writes, ” I think of you often and visit your website frequently. Studying your paintings, so well presented on your site, is a teaching tool. I am painting nearly every day. Yes, it has gotten under my skin…Painting keeps my spirit high and brings great joy to my life now. I am consumed with delightful mental strategizing about where to go next with a painting. Finally I am no longer afraid. You must know this is big. I finally feel free to experiment and to play, and am learning patience and forgiveness when the next step is not what I was hoping for. I am beginning to trust that in joining with the painting and listening to where it wants to go, that eventually the puzzle will fall into place (no rush). You, my friend, have been and will continue to be a faithful, gifted guide…I’ll be back for another class someday soon. I’m grateful for your inspiring and generous spirit, Sandy.”
When I read her words, I was filled with joy and exhilaration at Cielo’s persistence and her breakthroughs, so well expressed in her writing. And as a teacher, I felt validated!
One of the pieces I worked on for my Customs House Museum show Assemblages is an 11×14 assemblage called Starry. It features a bare tree fashioned from colorerd bits of rice paper, text and gel medium, against a cobalt and phthalo blue patchwork sky. The sky is filled with tiny patinated copper stars, some of which have fallen outside the picture plane onto the surrounding background and frame areas. A subtle light shines within the painted area like a warm evening, right after the stars come out. According to writer Karen Parr-Moody, who reviewed the show for the Leaf-Chronicle of Clarksville, TN, there is a “childlike innocence to this piece”.
As artists, we create with faith and hope that our pieces will find their rightful owners, who will value them for reasons of their own. Seldom in my experience has this been more true than with this whimsical nightscape. Shortly after the show was hung, Dave and Marcia Till visited the museum to see it and were enthralled with my Starry, the title as well as the image. They had a Starry of their own at home, a beautiful Maine Coon cat, with a shaggy coat like old satin, snowshoe paws and boots, and a lush, fluffy tail that could wrap all the way around her. Although she appeared quite normal, Starry had a congenital malformation of her sternum that crowded her heart and lungs and necessitated many visits to the vet. Shortly after the Tills first saw my piece Starry in the museum, Starry succumbed to her condition on Feb. 1, 2012 and had to be euthanized. As the days went by after Starry’s death, thoughts of the painting kept coming back to them, until Dr. Till finally turned to Marcia and said, ”Let’s go get Starry from the museum.” It now hangs in their home over a closed wooden vessel that holds the ashes of their Starry. I had the pleasure of meeting the Tills at the Assemblages reception and have corresponded by e-mail with Marcia to learn Starry’s story.
Here is a brief description of the cat Starry, her history and her habits, for you to enjoy.
Though Starry was bred to be an outdoor cat who could survive cold Maine winters, due to her health she lived indoors most of the time. Her full name was Starry, Starry Night, after the Don McLean song about Vincent van Gogh. Her father was named Swingin’ on a Star, a song I remember from my childhood, and her mother was Mainey Pearl. Because Starry longed to be outside, even in the Tennessee summer heat, Dave and Marcia would take her out briefly in the evenings so she could enjoy the garden. At twilight, huge, slow-moving fireflies would fill the yard. In Marcia’s words “They’re about her speed and they just float through the air with their big amber lanterns. One landed on her fluffy tail and she didn’t even notice. She would watch one and when it floated by her face, she’d pat it down to the grass with her paw. It would crawl in the grass and she’d watch it, letting it sail off again… It was a pretty sight, her white paws and bib just glowed in the twilight, and her golden eyes did too. We’ve repeated the “firefly walks” many times since. They sometimes land on her as she walks among them, tail waving, but her fur is so thick she can’t feel them, I suppose, or she just doesn’t mind.”
The image of this beloved kitty walking in a flower garden among the fireflies at dusk now fills my imagination and will no doubt find its way into my work at some point. I imagine the subtle light obscuring many of the details of the scene, save the fireflies and the tuxedo cat with her glowing golden eyes. In the meantime, I am honored to be a part of Starry’s story. Again, in Marcia’s words,” Thank you, Sandra. Starry’s beautiful little life and her “joy of being” continue to have resonance and you are a part of that.”
For the past six weeks I have taught an Experimental Sampler class at Art Creations at Hamilton Place. My students were willing to undertake this experience of learning (or, in some cases, relearning) a technique or two per week, while at the same time organizing these into a finished piece of art. They could choose to work on canvas, board or heavy paper. Flexibility and quick thinking were needed to assimilate each technique as it was presented and figure out how and where to use it on the piece. We started by using gel medium and texturing tools to create a raised, patterned surface. Techniques were taught by numerous demonstrations and one-on-ones and included hand-dyed tissue collage, colored and stamped deli paper, application of metal leafing, using oil bar and oil pastel as resist, and tinted glue line application. While incorporating each of these techniques, considerations like good composition based on repetition and variation, interesting value changes, figure/ground relationships, and good color choices were stressed. Overall, it was a technique- and thought-filled six weeks that should result in stronger paintings for everyone involved, including me! (Photos to follow soon!)
Art isn’t art until it is seen. Unseen, it is dormant, like sheet music in a piano bench or a work of literature on a bookshelf that goes unread. Strong visual art has the power to captivate and transfix, to move the viewer to unexplored realms, to ask more questions than it answers, to elicit responses that are difficult to articulate. Good art sustains repeated viewings and entertains the eye each time. Yesterday I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with seven pieces of my work that I hadn’t seen for a while. I took these pieces to the home of my good friend and web designer Bill Ramsey, who now has the task of choosing one of these to become the bedrock of his fledging art collection. When I arrived, I asked for a few minutes alone with the art, to unwrap each piece and prepare it for viewing, much like a mom who stops to comb her children’s hair before taking them to meet relatives. Then we spent about an hour talking about the pieces, technical stuff about how it was done, also color and composition. Mostly we talked about the content of these products of my time in the studio, so personal to me, like spectres of the joys and struggles of my life at the time, now all grown up and ready for life apart from their author.
Surprisingly, Bill was able to eliminate four of the seven after about an hour of viewing and discussing the work. One of the ones he eliminated was one I thought might be his final choice. So much for my predictions! With the three that remain, he will have a tough choice to make. Each of them engages him for a different reason, based on communication that he has established with the colors and imagery, and associations he makes with events and places that he holds dear. In two weeks I’ll go back to collect two of the three, leaving him with the piece of his choice. Whatever his choice, that piece will be art, because I know it will be seen.
In what is becoming a yearly custom, Anne Bagby hosted a workshop in her cool studio in Tullahoma, TN. Her studio is a remodeled craftsman style house that was the birthplace of Dinah Shore. Guests at the workshop came from as far away as Chicago and Atlanta to participate in this fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity. It was a day for reuniting with friends I don’t get to see very often and meeting new friends who love art. Today’s demo and lesson was designed to encourage beginning a painting without fear or even deliberation. Anne’s approach is totally different from mine, a very good thing because she and I have always learned a lot from watching the working methods of the other. Since we are both teachers, we know that, after filtering what we learn through our own aesthetic, the lesson will eventually show up in some form in our classes. We all began by creating three sheets of deli paper with a step-by-step process of painting, stamping, line drawing, shape finding, and block out painting. I enjoyed the rapidity of the process, plus the advice from Anne not to worry or even think in the early stages. A new appreciation emerged for using the randomness of unplanned lines to inform subsequent steps in the art-making process. I was able to come away with two finished 12×12 sheets and three beginnings with merit. Even more valuable to me was a new way to think about incorporating figurative elements into my work. I’m very excited to further explore everything covered today. Thank you, Anne!
Today is my first day back from an intense 3-day workshop sponsored by the Tellico Village Art Guild. This is my 5th workshop with this group over the last 7 or so years. About one half of the group has studied with me before while the other half were new to my teaching style and methods. When a workshop ends, I feel at loose ends for a few days. All of my mental and physical energy has been poured into each person in the group, finding different ways to help each one access the information and guidance I am attempting to impart. The title of the workshop was “Authentic Abstraction” and the goal was to help each person develop the ability to work more abstractly, using a formula of color and composition providing the foundation for the content within the piece. It never stops surprising me how a group of people can hear the same lecture and see the same demos, yet come away with such different paintings. This is one of my measures of success in teaching. I am never about having people try to duplicate what I do; instead, I hope they will integrate what they learn into their working styles and preferences, based on their training and life experiences. Each class or workshop I teach ultimately develops its own personality. This one was just about perfect. Everyone was laid back and happy to be there, all focused on the task at hand-to make authentic abstract paintings. Back home today, as I unloaded my car, I thought of each person who gave me the gift of three days of their time because they wanted to hear what I have to say. I felt truly blessed. Workshop weary wonder.