The Laws of Nature

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Components of Collaboration

Gilbert & George, 1972

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 3: "Life Support"
section 4: "Components of Collaboration"

Here, Richmond examines the "components" of collaboration. Her experiences in this area extend beyond creating works of art to include collaborative teaching at the university level. She begins a collaboration by identifying someone she'd like to work with and then designing a suitable project. The benefit of this approach, as she states it, is "that by exploring our common and complementary aspirations, we would be able to expand our own creative voice." This means finding someone who shares your goal.

After identifying an appropriate collaborator, Richmond engages in long, rambling conversations with her partner that result in the formation of an idea for their work. Personally, this could be a useful way to advance my own work. Frequently, I discuss my paintings with my husband (who is not an artist but is very intelligent) and those conversations provide me with insights and direction, even though we don't collaborate on the actual execution of my work.

Next, Richmond and her collaborator use a technique called "the interview." Initially, this involves intense questioning by her partner in an attempt to help clarify her thoughts. In fact, the author finds that this method of interviewing, or interrogation, is even more useful than the traditional technique. I have to agree. My mentor doesn't begin her critiques with her observations about my work. Rather, she asks a barrage of questions that require substantive answers to justify the decisions I made in concept formulation, composition, and technique. In a collaboration, Richmond and her partner conduct a series of interviews back and forth over time in order to develop a project.

Another effective technique is called "Yes, and..." Richmond learned this approach from an improvisational actor who taught her these rules: "first listen, and then say, 'Yes, and ...'" This means paying attention to your partner and then building upon that. It facilitates the building of ideas and a safe environment for the free exchange of ideas.

Now we arrive at something I was wondering about: the potential for a clash of egos. The author's solution to that problem is to view the collaboration as "great individual parts as well as a great whole." This eliminates the subordination of one of the artist's work, and is labeled "respecting individuality."

In order for two artists to collaborate, they must translate their individual vocabularies into a shared one that both can understand. That "vocabulary" could be words, techniques, or disciplines. This benefit of this approach is that it allows both artists to grow together and as separate individuals.

Finally, Richmond views the outcome of a successful collaboration as a "continuing influence" not only in her own future work, but also in future collaborations.

A solo artist, like myself, can glean some gems from this section of Richmond's book. Our conversations here on this blog, or in our own private realms, provide growth opportunities when we make the effort to exchange ideas and understand each other. These "conversations" inform my work and help me develop new conversations that are substantive and worthwhile.

What are your thoughts??

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Designing the Self-Critique

David Hockney

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 3: "Life Support"
section 3: "Designing the Self-Critique"

Before delving into Richmond's book once again, I'd like to sing the praises of the New York Foundation for the Arts for supporting the advancement of artists in their careers. I have just been awarded a grant from NYFA to support my solo exhibition in Maine this summer, and couldn't be more grateful.

Now, onto section 3" Designing the Self-Critique," which begins with the sentence: We are all hungry for critiques. This is something we've discussed many times on this blog, so it will be interesting to learn this author's viewpoint. She notes that we can't always get good, honest feedback and must find a way to conduct a thorough self-critique, especially since most of us work in isolation. Objectivity is key to this process. What insight does Richmond offer us?

1. Think the opposite - look at the other end of the spectrum. For instance, in reviewing one of my own paintings I might say "my work contains too many hard edges." The opposite would be to say, "my work contains too few hard edges," and then work to further exaggerate that characteristic. I believe that what Richmond is getting at here, is that our work improves if we accentuate an important aspect.

2. Put it up - display your work all over your house, especially while it's in progress. I like accidentally "bumping into" my work here and there when I'm running around the house attending to other matters. The encounter is often unexpected, and so I have a fresh look at my work and get a better impression of where it's headed.

3. Paste it in a publication - this is a really neat idea that I've never tried. Take a photo of your work, reduce it in size, print it, cut it out, and then paste it in an art magazine. Seeing your work in that context helps "illuminate its flaws, its virtues, and its relevance in our contemporary culture."

4. Recreate it in another medium - here, Richmond uses David Hockney's approach to illustrate her idea. He is a painter who also uses photography to develop a technique called "joiners" ( a series of photographs of a scene over time that were pieced together) to create a 2-D map of time and space. This work informs his paintings.

The purpose of these four approaches to a self-critique is to help us gain new persepective, which is important to those of us who tend to work in solitary confinement.

Your thoughts??

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Marilyn Quint-Rose, my mentor and dear friend in her studio

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 3: "Life Support"
section 2: "Murial Cooper"

One of the things I love about artists is our ability to open up and reveal to the world who we are. In a sense, it's like being loveable puppy who rolls on its back exposing its tender underbelly expecting a good rub. However, we don't always get a satisfying rub; sometimes we get a painful jab. It's evident from our wonderful discussion yesterday, that many of us have scars on our tender underbellies and feel a little more protective of them than we used to. Experience is a tough teacher. But, adversity can make us wiser and more determined to succeed. And so, Wendy Richmond dedicates the third chapter of her book to equipping us with the mental tools necessary for our long-term commitment to making art.

Section 2 is titled after Ms. Richmond's mentor, Murial Cooper, who was also the media director of MIT Press and co-founder and director of the Visible Language Workshop at MIT. The author writes a moving tribute to her former mentor who is now deceased, and ponders the importance of not only having a mentor, but being a mentor to someone else.

A good mentor has many necessary attributes. Here, Ms. Cooper serves as a paradigm for effective mentoring. My summary of her characteristics, below, isn't listed in Wendy's book; rather, it's my interpretation of her description of the characteristics possessed by her mentor. Those of you who are reading along, please add whatever I'm missed:

  • First, it's evident from the author's tribute that her mentor was an accomplished woman who possessed advanced skills and vast experience. Her thoughts and opinions deserved consideration and respect.

  • Second, it's also evident that Ms. Cooper carefully listened to others and gave due consideration to their ideas.

  • Third, this mentor encouraged collaboration among her students and peers. She saw the importance of working cooperatively toward a goal that's bigger than any single person and in a way that fosters good will among the team members.

  • Fourth, Ms. Cooper was generous with her materials, time, and encouragement.

  • Fifth, she gave informed guidance but also allowed the freedom of experimentation and exploration.

  • Sixth, it appears that she never demeaned or degraded anyone, nor did she inflict guilt or punishment.

  • Seventh, Ms. Cooper was forward-looking.

I'll save my personal comments about mentors in my life for our discussion when you post your own comments. Please tell us about your mentor (s) and the characteristics that made her/him effective.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Life Support

Andrew Wyeth

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 3: "Life Support"
section 1: "First Accept No Harm"

Psychologically, being an artist is about as easy as climbing Mt. Everest without prior experience and little to no assistance. There are too many ways to easily slip and fall. There are too few people at that altitude to urge us on. There are too many doubts in our own heads about whether or not we can complete the climb. And yet, there is something exhiliarating about it. Chapter 3 of Richmond's book adresses an artist's psychological battle and is timely for this artist because it's been a very long winter in the studio battling my way into another series of paintings.

Section 1, "First Accept No Harm," begins with an examination of the importance of support and the impact of the lack of support on our psyche. For the latter, Richmond names the ways:
  • criticisms that are doled out lightly but cripple our passion
  • negligence that leaves a prolonged bitterness
  • people who take advantage of us
  • self-serving advice given by a loved/trusted one
  • blame for not doing enough
  • society's general indifference
  • and, America's attitude that undervalues art as a serious profession

All of this erodes our confidence and inhibits our creativity, sometimes on a daily basis. What's the remedy for the artist? Richmond advises us to be "clear about what you want and hope for: to declare, defend, and pursue what you want. Sometimes this means identifying that which holds you back, and seeing how insidious lack of support, in all its guises, can be." She observes that we artists are most vulnerable when our passion and hopes to do good work are great. I agree, and think that it's at those times that creativity is squelched if we're not careful. The author gives more advice: "When I try to figure out, and then try to do, what someone else wants, I fail. But, when I focus on what I want and how I want to do it, I succeed." Her title First Accept No Harm should be conspicuously posted on every artist's studio wall!

Your thoughts??

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What's in an Arch? & Constructed Walls

Janet Fish

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 2, "Culture's Frames and Filters"
section 8, "What's in an Arch?"
section 9, "Constructed Walls"

It's time to conclude Chapter 2, so I'm posting my summary of the last two sections at the same time so we may move on. These sections are closely tied in content, so it makes sense to consider them together. "What's in an Arch?" begins with the author's overwhelming reaction to the St. Louis Gateway Arch when she first experienced it. For those of you who haven't seen it, there's a picture below. According to Richmond, the arch was designed by Eero Saarinen, the architect who also designed JFK International Airport and Dulles Airport, the John Deere & Co. headquarters, the Kresge Auditorium at MIT, and so on. Unfortunately, he died in 1961 at the young age of 51. The arch construction didn't begin until 1963 and took two years to complete, so he never saw it.

Richmond reflects upon the fact that although the design for the Arch was considered radical for its time, it was no longer considered radical by the time it was built. This is because Saarinen had designed and constructed other modern buildings in the time between the Arch's design and construction that shifted and shaped public opinion. The author comments: Imagine yourself creating a design or artwork that is too radical to be accepted, and then your work over subsequent years influences the field to such an extent that your earliest work is considered groundbreaking.

OK - I'll imagine that. Although I'm not on the A-List of artists, I can identify with this to a lesser degree. My first eggshell paintings were viewed with raised eyebrows by many of my peers and jurors when I revealed them five years ago. After a couple of years, they gained favor and started winning awards at juried exhibitions. That led to solo exhibitions at galleries, and features in books. Then the eggshell paintings began to sell to the general public, so I own very few of them now. These days, I actually get emails from people who are using my concept in their own paintings and want me to see what they've created. I make no claim to greatness here, but, in my own small way I experienced what Ms. Richmond asks us to imagine.

The rest of this section is a philosophical exercise in answering the question: "What's in a Monument" and leads nicely into the final section of Chapter 2, entitled "Constructed Walls." Here, the author explains the impact of visiting Eastern European historical sites and memorials that evoked in her thoughts about the meanings of walls. She writes: My personal walls are built by me, by choice. On my trip, I saw these monuments as metaphors for cities where the personal spaces were others' constructions and were made not to protect feedom of thought but to annihilate it.

Since Richmond's second chapter is concerned with culture, I was hoping for a grand conclusion and was a little disappointed not to find one. Therefore, I'll write my own here:
Human history records numerous cultural revolutions in societies around the world over time. These were times when the existing culture was forcibly repressed during political and social upheaval. Intellectuals were persecuted or killed, art was destroyed, books were burned, and cultural symbols and practices were prohibited in an effort to completely eradicate the culture itself because its influence threatened those in power. But, no cultural revolution ever completely succeeded because, without killing the entire population, the survivors preserved their culture within themselves. When the oppressing regime is toppled, the repressed culture is resurrected in one form or another. And (here comes the grand conclusion!) the arts play an enormous role in the revitalization of a repressed culture. Poets, writers of prose, painters, sculptors, actors, and dancers remember, interpret, and relate to us what once was, what is, and even what will be. We artists reflect the culture we live in and that influences and informs us, but we are also responsible for keeping culture alive.

What I wanted to read at the end of this chapter, and did not, is the enduring nature of culture; the desire of the people who live it to continue it even at the cost of their lives and all that they hold dear. This is what informs and concerns our art.

Your thoughts??

Monday, February 22, 2010

Respecting Culture

Thomas Hart Benton

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 2 "Culture's Frames and Filters"
Section 7 "Respecting Culture"

Before we begin our discussion of the next section of Wendy Richmond's book, I'll share this email with you:

Hi Kathy,
My publisher just forwarded your blog to me and I am so delighted (and
impressed with your blog!) I am currently in a crazy travel week and away from email and internet, but I do look forward to joining the discussion about my book during the next few weeks!

And just FYI, a link to YouTube about my current show...overheard

With warmest regards,

To view Wendy's exhibition go here: Overheard

My goodness! I look forward to Wendy's comments, and I think she'll enjoy reading yours, which have so much substance and insight.

By now, you're well aware of the fact that Chapter 2 deals with culture and art, and each section considers another facet of this gem. This section begins with likening artists to cultural alchemists who transform what we know into something else that becomes an artistic statement. This leads the author to ask: What happens to culture as it passes through us? Do we alter the meaning of a symbol or pattern by changing its context? Do we even understand the meaning of the elements we are using? And, she asks if artists have the right to appropriate from other cultures. And, is it really appropriation or is it creativity?

Our discussions over the past couple of days provided answers to many of these questions. Your insights and opinions are informative and I'll refer my readers to review the past few blogs to read your comments. Here, we'll look at how the author answers her own questions.

First of all, artists are identified as "visual communicators" whose responsibility it is to try to understand the cultural images created. She wisely points out that our ignorance will make us vulnerable, and relates her own personal experience which you can read in her book. And, I can relate to making mistakes from ignorance. If I tried to relate all those mistakes to you I'd have to write my own book! Too many to name.

So, Ms. Richmond concludes, the more knowledge and awareness we have of the ways we use culture, the better and more honest our work will be. Looks like we have to do our homework.

Before concluding, I'd like to consider one of the author's questions with a slight modification:
Where is the dividing line between appropriation and creativity?

Your thoughts?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Exhibiting the Complexity of Culture

Edward Hopper

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 2 "Identity and Authenticity",
section 6 "Exhibiting the Complexity of Culture"

Before I begin a discussion about this section of Richmond's book, I'd like to thank each and every one of you who took to the time to evaluate and critique my work over the weekend! Your comments are very, very helpful and I'll continue to ponder them as I move forward. Working in a vacuum is OK for awhile, be I need to engage in dialogue about my work from time to time to stay on track. Thank you for your generosity and for tolerating my self-indulgence!!

And now, back to Richmond's book:

Here, the author continues her exploration of the influence of culture upon the arts in the context of representing one's national identity. Her conclusion is: "Perhaps the strongest argument for learning about other cultures through the arts is to consider the ways that we, as Americans, are represented in other nations. Hopefully, there will be support for venues in the world that provide alternative ways to the ones delivered by the mass media."

She precedes this conclusion in her text with a discussion about contemporary Chinese art that has been exhibited at venues around the world and represents the modern Chinese culture as a fusion of the past with the present, and concern for the future. These artist provide the world with insight into the cultural transition that is occurring in their nation. Richmond cites several specific examples and I'm certain that my savvy readers (you!) are familiar enough. Today, I prefer to focus our discussion on the overarching concept of this book section rather than to delve into these specific examples.

As an artist, do you view your work as representative of your nation? Intentionally or not, does it provide to the world a glimpse of your own culture? Should it? Does it matter? I don't have the answer to these questions, and must admit that it really doesn't matter to me. As Richmond discussed earlier in her text, we are the product of our culture and, therefore, our art must in some way reflect it even if we're not making a conscious effort to do so. Even so, should an artist necessarily be preoccupied with the purpose of creating art that is representative of his/her nation or culture?

I included an image of Edward Hopper with this post because his work and viewpoint typifies the America of our recent past. I don't know that it was his intention to reveal the culture of his nation to the world, but that is one of the consequences.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Identity and Authenticity

work by Julio Cesar Morales

Art Without Compromise, by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 2, section 5: "Identity and Authenticity"

An underlying assumption is that the expression of a single cultural identity brings authenticity to a work of art. In this section of her book, Richmond, an American, struggles with finding her own cultural identity. How, she asks, could she make powerful work if she doesn't belong to a single culture? Richmond reached this crisis after viewing the work of artist Julio Cesar Morales, who documented Tijuana street vendors' customized pushcarts.

Troubled, Wendy turned to a friend who said, "You do have a cultural identity, and it is an amalgamation of cultures. Culture is like chocolate at 98 degrees. It's sticky and you can't help getting it on you." We Americans are culturally diverse, and share the various elements of our cultures with each other. That IS our culture, and one that I strongly identify with.

So, Richmond discovered and embraced her new-found identity, and began to see herself as "as a collection of fractions, borrowed from an infinite array of sources." This, she feels, provides lots of opportunity for unique work that can be powerful. But, she also realized that cultures change, and concludes this section with the text from Morales's exhibition: "He understands first-hand the ways consciousness shifts and morphs as it moves between languages, cultures and political systems."


And now, for a bit of fun. I took Wendy's advice about finding some non-precious time in the studio yesterday and let loose.
Title: "Palette, Dynamite, Fuse, Match."
Medium: watercolor on paper

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Anna Mary Robertson, a.k.a. "Grandma Moses"

Art Without Compromise, by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 2, section 4: "Pilgrimage"

Not that long ago I wrote of my annual pilgrimage to the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to see one particular Sargeant painting. I've been making that pilgrimage since 1965, although I did miss several years along the way. In this section of her book, Richmond describes how her efforts to see one particular work of art in an inconvenient location impacted her. Then, she compares the impact of that pilgrimage to visiting "blockbuster" traveling exhibitions that are intended to maximize attendance. In her opinion, these blockbuster events are purposefully designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to maximize attendance, and are therefore, starved of intellectual and cultural nourishment.

Richmond telescopes this idea to include the malnourished content delivered by the mass media in general. She concludes that this approach "is at the expense of risk, originality, and complexity." Circling back to the pilgrimage she made to view a single work of art, the author stresses the importance of her effort in creating a stronger connection to the art, and in providing her with intellectual and cultural nourishment.

I'll add that Richmond is actually writing about "depth" vs. "breadth" in our exposure to art. By concentrating on a single piece, one spends more time observing and understanding it. This allows one to relate to the piece and to a better understanding of the artist's decision-making process. Additionally, this approach leaves an indelible impression that one can feast upon throughout a lifetime.

But, depth and breadth are a wedded couple, in my opinion. I think it's important to experience both so that we may understand the broad range of possibilities as well as the specifics. I don't believe that blockbuster events necessarily lack intellectual and cultural nourishment. I've been to many and have marvelled at the wide range of approaches to a single theme. These exhibits inform me and expand my imagination.

What's your opinion?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ways of Knowing

Frank Stella

Art Without Compromise, by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 2, section 3: "Ways of Knowing"

In this section, Richmond draws from her personal life and experience to describe how she developed better skills in problem solving, or "knowing." Although she doesn't use the term, her description for problem solving is actually the "scientific method," which begins with observation, then hypothesis, testing, analysis, and results. There's a logical progression to it that's not confusing. Additionally, Richmond cites one of her colleagues at Harvard, Professor Schwartz, who advised that when working through issues, it's important to make "outrageously simplifying assumptions." By so doing, one can reduce a complex problem into simple parts that, hopefully, will result in an elegant solution. Despite her focus on this particular approach, the author acknowledges that there are many different ways of knowing.

I can relate to this. Although my life-long focus has been creating art, I decided to take on a second discipline in my late thirties, after I had moved aboard a sailboat and embarked on a long voyage that sparked a desire to understand our physical planet from the scientific perspective. So, I enrolled in college again, this time to study the geosciences, and eventually landed a faculty position at a college from which I am now retired. During those years, the "scientific method" was my "way of knowing" and I've applied it to my art.

This training gave me the ability to identify and utilize simplifying assumptions in order to get somewhere without being bogged-down by minutia or competing priorities. And, to me, this is the most important idea that Richmond conveys in this section of her book. I think we should discuss it. What simplifying assumptions are important to an artist when creating a work of art?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Frames and Filters

Wassily Kandinsky

Before I discuss the next section of our book, I must bring attention to the comment that Deborah C. Stearns wrote on yesterday's post. If you haven't yet read it, please do. It sheds a whole new light on the artist's self-analysis that is important to consider. Thank you, Deborah!
Moving on ...

The second section of Chapter 2 in Wendy Richmond's book begins with the sentence: We know the world through frames and filters. She elaborates on the various media, trends, environments, and cultures which are the frames and filters that shape how we think, act, and judge the world around us. Although these influences could become restrictive and inhibiting, Richmond feels that they provide the greatest atmosphere for creativity. How so?

Richmond begins to answer that question by providing a few examples of early influences upon our opinions. She cites the positive connotation we assign to the word "simple" because of Shaker workmanship, or the value given to "Conceptualism" because of Marcel Duschamp's idea, and the importance of "efficiency" because of the Industrial Revolution. She adds that these meanings change with time as new innovations occur and societies change. The author writes: these filters of media, history, and culture are always changing, their influence grows and shrinks depending on time, place, and the person who is looking through them. That's where our own creative freedom lives. Each of us, as individuals, absorbs these filters, and with them we bring our own meaning to a piece of work.

In other words, the artist's job is to bring authenticity to her work by using the frames and filters she has accumulated throughout her life to find her own unique meaning. We've discussed this many times on this blog, and it seems to be emerging in every book I read as a universal truth. Perhaps this is the only way our work can become "original." Repeatedly, I return to Ben Shahn's advice: the artist must first ask, "What kind of person am I?" and then strive to produce art that truly represents "who I am."

And now, your thoughts.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Seeing Your Work in a Historical Context

Lee Krasner, 1935

Chapter 2 of Wendy Richmond's book is entitled "Culture's Frames and Filters," and the first section in that chapter challenges us to describe our work in a historical context. The underlying assumption for this is that artists should understand their own work as deeply as is possible. Personally, I don't know if I agree with that assumption. Nevertheless, it's worth exploring.

Richmond gives us a method for arriving at a view of our work in a historical context:

1. describe the history of your own work

2. describe the events and circumstances during the time you were working

3. identify the influential events in the history of your artistic field.

The first question that comes to my mind is: Why? This seems like intense psychotherapy and I don't know that the answers will be particularly beneficial. Ms. Richmond provides one rationale that makes sense: doing this may help me find where I first discovered my passion. And, by looking at the works that were important to me and how I constructed them, I may be able to return to my inspiration if I've strayed from it. This could yield greater personal satisfaction and better results. OK, that makes sense.

I won't go into the details of this particular section of the book because I think that the method speaks for itself. However, I'm reminded of our previous conversations about the role of our unconscious or intuition in creating works of art. Some of us rely on it more than others, but I think we all use intuition to some degree. As much as I admire Ms. Richmond's methods, it appears that she challenges herself and her students toward a more conscious approach to making art. But, I'm only on chapter 2. While it's true that I consciously design my paintings before I begin slinging paint, eventually intuition takes over. When it's time to critique my work, conscious thought takes over. I don't know that I would attempt to view my work in a historical context as it's presented here. But, I may be wrong. Enlighten me.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Underlying Questions

Robert Rauschenberg, 1965

The last section of Chapter 1 in Richmond's book raises important "underlying questions" designed to help artists identify in their art its themes, how it developed, and where it is going. It is the answers to these questions that help us market our art privately and through galleries, obtain grants, pen articles and books, and so on. The author identifies this step as intermediate between completing one's work and presenting it to the public. Here are the essential underyling questions:

1. Do you know what the consistent themes of your work have been, and can you point to where your work is going?

2. Is your work developed enough that you can speak comfortably about it?

3. Do you believe that your work is relevant to present-day topics? And do you care?

4. What is the proper outlet or venue for your work?

5. What is your work about?

I've always been reluctant to undergo the mind-bending process that is required to answer these questions in a complete, logical and concise way. But, it's been necessary as I've written grant proposals, statements for galleries, catalogues for solo exhibitions, and text for books in which my work is featured, etc. Once I learned how to answer these questions I was surprised to find that I had developed the urge to make my work more meaningful and relevant. The truth is, I'd rather paint, but answering these questions is essential to moving my work from the studio into the public arena.

Your thoughts?

Developing a Creative Practice

Diebenkorn in his studio.

We've almost completed Chapter 1 of Wendy Richmond's book Art Without Compromise. Stan, you're probably way ahead of us! Before discussing this section of the book, I'd like to digress a little to discuss something that relates to yesterday's post.

I spent two agonizing hours last evening "ghost writing" an installation proposal for a sculptor who wishes to exhibit in a public space. I use the word "agonizing" because the scribbled description that this veteran artist sent me in lieu of a concept definition was so amorphous that I couldn't find the boundaries. So, I spent most of my time looking at images of the sculptures (which I had seen in person last year) and trying to figure out what the heck the titles meant. After two hours, I conjured up what I think the concept is or should be. I mention this in support of Richmond's suggestion that we should know how to answer the question "My work is about..." In theory, no one else can answer it for you. In practice, however, some artists need to hire a "ghost writer" like me because they can't put into words that which they created through intuition.

Back to the next section of Richmond's book, entitled "Developing a Creative Practice." This section is very much like some of the advice given in Ian Roberts' book Creative Authenticity, which we discussed last December. The point that Richmond makes here is about self-imposing discipline in art-making. This suits me since I thrive on established routines. Here are some suggestions for providing a structure for your creative output:

1. Working side by side - this means working alongside others who are engaging in the same process. You don't have to share the same physical space, but there needs to be a vehicle for mutual support. I think that blogging is a great way to do this, since I cannot paint with other people in the same room (keeps me from concentrating).

2. Required studio time and place - commit to a schedule and show up to work. Personally, this is the only way I can be productive and stay happy about it.

3. Critiques and feedback - Richmond is an art instructor and encourages her students to meet in triads for mini critiques. This is a great idea. I'm part of a group of 12 that regularly critiques the works of its members, which is especially helpful to me, and I value the opinions of my blog readers as well. Of course, it's important to know how to filter through the suggestions and retain the useful ones. Blogging can be used for critique, but may also hinder our efforts through too much false praise.

4. Insights from a daily practice - here, the author advises us to keep a daily journal to record thoughts and processes. Some of you are good at this, I'm not. In fact, if I did create one I'd probably never read it later. Am I missing something? Probably.

5. Finding a non-precious routine - solo artists, like me, are responsible for both the initial idea and the outcome. As Richmond points out, this can lead to stress that hinders creativity because it makes us feel that everything we do in the studio must be important. The remedy is to establish some "non-threating" routines for engaging in the work as a process rather than a performance. Hmmm... I need to work on that one!

6. Committing to creativity - the bottom line is our individual commitment to creating art. It's a responsibility that we cannot delegate to others if we want to succeed.

Next post ... the end of Chapter 1.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Visual Reflection Notebooks

I'm excited about this section of Chapter 1 in Ms. Richmond's book because it's so useful! She begins by writing "One of the most difficult and elusive phrases for an artist to complete is: 'My work is about..." The author designed this section of her book to help artists finish that sentence by utilizing the items piled up in our studios that helped us develop our art in the first place. These items include stored paintings, sketchbooks, postcards, article clippings, notes, and other things that we feel are important enough to hold onto. Here, we learn how to mine that resource and transform it into a form that is useful for future development.

So, Richmond explains how she "developed a technique for translating past work and influences into a form that can, as an entity in itself, shed light on this continuum." This is her visual reflection notebook. She begins by transforming images of her work into small, black-and-white photocopies that are the same size and glues them into a sketchbook. Looking through the notebook, she identifies recurrent patterns and themes that weren't previously apparent, and records new insights.

The reader is given the format for Richmond's notebooks. They are compiled in a number of ways to maximize their utility. First, she arranges and glues the black-and-white images in random order to help identify common themes and patterns. Next, she creates another set of images that's glued into the notebook in chronological order to understand her creative decisions. Additionally she analyzes why certain works failed, which adds clarity to understanding new directions taken. Her clever idea of making all the images b&w and scaled to the same reduced size is fundamental to the comparison process because it eliminates the distractions of color, texture, etc. Richmond also places images of her work next to images of the works of others who have influenced her in order to better understand how she can improve her work. She writes her insights and ideas throughout the notebook and uses them as a foundation for development. Additionally, Wendy (as Don and Stan know her) shares her notebooks with her students and encourages them to share their own as well. This is done because others are able to identify connections and patterns that might have been overlooked.

In conclusion, the author writes "the pages of these notebooks are juxtapositions of time, media, failure, success, opinion, and inspiration... the notebooks is not a retrospective, nor is it a diary or journal... instead, its aim is to discover underlying themes, directions, and patterns that you may be missing and that can inform your current and future work." It also enables artists to complete the sentence that begins with "My work is about ..."

Your thoughts?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bringing Play to Work

I really like the title of section 4, Chapter 1 of Wendy Richmond's book, Art Without Compromise. "Bringing Play to Work" is something I need to do right now since I'm feeling intense labor pains over the birth of my new series and, this winter is long.

This section begins with the phrase "Back in 1994," which is a little unnerving since that seems like the blink of an eye in time to me. Nevertheless, Richmond discusses when the Chiat/Day advertising agency redesigned its headquarters, and the subsequent description that appeared in The New York Times Magazine as: "the architectural equivalent of a brainstorm: 29,000 boisterous, loosely organized square feet, bursting with color, form, and wit." Inspired by this article, Richmond assigned to her graphic design class the task of "creating a design studio that embodies the essence of enjoyment and creativity." They were challenged to use an unconventional space and ended up transforming and ice skating rink into an office in a most unusual way. I especially liked the idea of using the ice as a chalkboard and a Zamboni for the eraser.

The rest of this chapter describes in detail the students' marvelous and fun innovations. The moral of the story is: What I had not expected was that they would also identify a creative essential that we often forget, even eliminate, in our work: the element of play.

It's time to remodel my studio!! Where'd I put that whoopie cushion? Seriously, though, I can see her point. The "creative juices" flow faster when I'm having fun.

Below is an attempt to meld my individual kelp studies into a single composition. Although parts of it please me, I'm still unhappy with some problem areas and will try, try again on a new sheet of paper today. The size is 21" x 27", watercolor on paper. Maybe this will turn out better if I leave it to chance and have some fun!!

Your thoughts?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Setting Up and Letting Go

Continuing with Chapter 1 of Richmond's book, we've arrived at section 3 which is entitled "Setting Up and Letting Go." Once again, the author offers us sage advice: relinquish the control that you never had in the first place. I'd say that this is good advice for life in general. But, let's see how it's applied to making art.

She begins by acknowledging that preparation and hard work are important if we want good results. But, it is equally important to allow chance to play a role. I like to call this "contingency," where unexpected events require a response or reaction. The importance of "chance" is that it can enhance our efforts, especially if we take advantage of it and use it. Of course, our ability to utilize the opportunities that chance offers us is based upon our previous experiences, tools, resources, and confidence. A strong foundation is essential.

Richmond, or "Wendy" as Don knows her (wink), relates an interesting experience where an artist set up an experiment that forced him to relinquish control during an early stage of production. Therefore, he had no idea what the finished product would become in a process that he defined as a compromise between total control and self-negation.

If you'll indulge me once again, I'll return to my teaching experience to illustrate this point. During my early professorial years, when I was still "green," I placed too much emphasis on sticking to the syllabus I had created for the course. This didn't allow me to respond to student interest in particular topics that would have provided greater depth to the course. It also didn't allow students the opportunity to pursue their interests and relate the material to their own lives. Eventually, I realized that this was a disservice to my students, and so I began to pay close attention to their viewpoints and interests, even inviting them to spend time with me individually to discuss themselves. By listening and letting go of my planned syllabus, I was able to become a much more effective teacher who, each semester, had a long waiting list of students that wanted to enroll in my courses. And, as the student roster changed every term, I had to change the course to suit that particular group. Decades of teaching this way taught me that contingency, or "chance," is a great opportunity to create something meaningful, unique, and interesting that others can relate to. I also found that my teaching became more fun and rewarding. I've tried to embrace contigency as I paint, but must admit that I'm not as successful as I'd like to be. But, I have, of late, been studying the works of our new good friend Stan Kurth who has mastered this process.

Richmond concludes this section of her book by writing Powerful work is often defined by its ability to remain relevant within a new set of circumstances that occur after the piece is conceived. We have a lot to gain when we allow the work to be nourished by whatever surrounds it.


Your thoughts?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Creative Process Loop, continued

Section 2 of Chapter 1 in Wendy Richmond's book Art Without Compromise is named "The Creative Process Loop." The central purpose for this section is to provide the reader with a method for supporting the creative process. Before defining the "loop," the author describes the feelings and reactions that are common to artists when they struggle to find ideas for their work.

The author describes three common reactions:

  • suppression of the initial spark of an idea by our doubts, distractions, fear of seeming derivative, overwhelming techinical complexity, lack of time, lack of discipline, and so on. In other words, destroying the beginning of an idea rather than fully developing it.

  • impatience with the process of developing an idea because of the urge to find immediate solutions.

  • fear that blocks creativity. Richmond cites two opposing fears: 1) the fear of the unknown where the artist doesn't have a clear idea of what the final product will be and doesn't want to waste valuable time struggling to find it, and 2) the fear an artist feels about comitting too quickly to an intial and idea and investing so much time and energy in it so that it becomes too precious to be abandoned.
The obvious question is posed: Is there a way to sustain one's creative confidence and energy throughout the entire process .... keeping a balance between the unpredictable state of not knowing, and of tangible, visible progress?
That's a BIG question, and here's Richmond's solution:

The Creative Process Loop

Stage 1: Observe -and record your observations in some way that's meaningful to you.

Stage 2: Reflect - over what you've recorded and spend time finding what resonates with you.

Stage 3: Articulate - create a physical piece that can be presented to others.

The "loop" begins after the third stage, when you present the tangible piece and observe the reaction, reflect on the feedback you receive, and create another iteration.

Richmond concludes this section by noting that the most important part of repeating this process is to maintain the balance between not knowing and having the "answer." She feels that it's critically important to move quickly through these stages in order to form rapid prototyping that removes the "preciousness of the investment." Each cycle moves you closer to your goal.

I'm writing this post as I'm reading the text for the very first time, and am amazed to find that Richmond's "loop" is similar to the one I teach in my workshops, but she leaves out a great deal that's important to making it work. I won't elaborate here because I want to encourage students to enroll in my course (forgive me for this shameless self-promotion!). However, I can verify from personal experience that this process works.

I'd like to back up a little and reflect upon what it means to invest so much time and material on an idea that it becomes too precious to abandon. Making progress requires us to take off the blinders, face the fact that something just isn't working, and walk away. It's also important to realize that we didn't waste our time and materials because the very act of creating is instructive even if the final product is unsuccessful.

The second important point is about spending time developing an idea. Most series that I've painted started with an idea that I developed over years! I've learned to be patient with this stage of my process and trust that a good idea will emerge. And this really is the heart of the matter: trusting in oneself to find good solutions - eventually. Patience is its own reward.

Your thoughts?

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Creative Process Loop

Chapter 1 of Wendy Richmond's book Art Without Compromise is divided into seven sections, and I'd like to review each section individually to glean the most from it. The first section is entitled "Cultivating Creativity." Here, the author rehashes some ideas about authenticity that we've discussed in earlier blogs. However, here she examines it in the context of planning less and exploring more when creating a work of art. She provides some interesting examples to help us understand this:

First, Richmond relates her own creative process. Typically, she enters the studio with a plan or concept for her work and strays from it as she lets the materials lead her in unexpected directions. Although she doesn't use the term, this seems to me to be intuition. By the time she leaves the studio, her work is very different from what she had expected it to be at the start, which makes it more authentic.

The second example reinforces the first. Richmond cites an event described in a book by Bayles and Orland, where a ceramics teacher divides her class into two groups at the beginning of the semester. One group is told that they'll be graded on the quality of their work by the semester's end, and the other group is told that they'll be graded on the quantity of work they produce. As it turned out at the end of the semester, the group with the highest quality of work was the group who had produced the largest quantity. That group was constantly learning and improving while the other group invested their time theorizing about perfection and didn't progress in their actual work. So, she concludes, producing a large volume of work is a way for the artist to reach the desired destination.

I agree. As you know, I am a careful planner, but my plans can only take me so far. I must make unexpected changes to my work as I paint if I want it to turn out well. And, I've also found that quantity - completing lots of paintings - is essential to finding "my voice" and producing a few that are "good." The more I paint the better the results. It's like practicing scales on the piano in order to perform a sonata.

Richmond encourages the artist to "cultivate a state of not knowing." She believes that artists have an obligation to enter unknown territory. It is through exploring new techniques, materials, and concepts that we cultivate creativity and bring authenticity to our work. The "unexpected" yields innovative solutions.

Key to this is "removing editors," as the author puts it. The editors are those who offer their opinions about our work. By listening to them too much, we don't listen enough to the work itself. As she states, "One of the greatest values in the process of art making is the dialogue that goes on within the work itself." Richmond cites Michelangelo's process when he was sculpting The Dying Slave. He claimed to simply "free" the figure from the block of marble that contained it. So, she concludes, finding authenticity in your work involves getting rid of the crusted layers of opinions, styles, and accomplishments (yours and others). The conversations, the influence, and the momentum are within the work: one step leads to another; one mark informs the next.

This is great advice. Although I believe that it's necessary to plan the general design and values of a painting in advance, it is important to establish a dialogue with the work itself as it's being created. Right now, I'm developing a new series of paintings in watercolor. Every day I paint a new "study" to experiment with ideas and techniques that eventually will become incorporated into a single larger-scale painting, and then another and another. I still don't know what the end product will be, because I'm in the midst of a dialogue. Below, are two of the seven studies I painted this week that will be incorporated into the larger work. In case they aren't recognizable to you, the paintings feature kelp that the tide has left behind on a rocky coast.

Next post: "The Creative Process Loop."
Your thoughts?

Art Without Compromise

I love museum stores, and especially the one at the Clark Museum that Carolyn and I visited a couple of days ago. They have a wonderful selection of books and, of course, I can't leave without purchasing at least one! My choice this time is a book entitled Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond, 2009. The description on the back cover enticed me:

Art without compromise will inspire artists to change the way they think aobut their creative landscapes, from personal goals to cultural influences to technological realities. Author Wendy Richmond helps artists to look closely at what they see every day, both in their own art-making and in the world around them. Readers will learn to develop an uncompromising commitment to finding and protecting their own unique process for making their strongest art.

OK - I'm hooked. This is the book I'll be reviewing over the next few weeks. A quick peek inside the covers reveals fascinating topics that are worthy of discussion. I hope you'll be interested as well. And, if the author is reading this blog (which seems to be more common that I previously realized) I hope she'll join our discussion.

According to the description, this book considers the following topics:
  • understanding the artist's unique indentity in relation to the larger culture

  • building systems of support and collaboration

  • explaining how an artist's needs can lead to innovation and authenticity

  • responding to the Internet and changing concepts of what is public and private

  • accepting digression as a creative necessity

Sounds good to me. In my next post I'll start with Chapter 1. Stay tuned ....

Thursday, February 4, 2010

This Is Killing Me

Yesterday, Carolyn Abrams (CarolinaMoon) and I had a wonderful day visiting a couple of museums in western Massachusetts. One exhibit at MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) made us cringe. Entitled "This Is Killing Me," the exhibit features eight artists who express their anxieties in making art. The leaflet for the exhibit explains: Feelings of inadequacy are evident in some of the work - the artist plagued by the idea that she or he is not good enough, hard-working enough, or famous enough (and never will be). Other works unveil the sources (or lack thereof) of the artist's inspiration - laying bare the pressure to develop meaningful and original ideas. Some artists give shape and form to the creative process, emphasizing their labor (and their procrastination). Many of the artists derive content from psychoanalysis, exposing their conscious and unconscious fears.

This exhibit is definitely NOT for artists who need positive reinforcement! It was painful to see. However, it did reveal many feelings that are common to most of us and are, therefore, worthy of consideration. Below are images of some of the works in this exhibition and brief statements about the artists' ideas. (The descriptions are either paraphrased or directly quoted from the brochure).

Artist: Whitney Bedford
Work: Broken Hand 26
Artist's concept: This painting is part of a series of paintings of broken hands that symbolize Bedford's deep fear that she could become physically unable to paint, which would threaten her art career.

Artist: Karl Haendel
Work: Karl-O-Gram #9
Artist's Concept: An exploration of an array of tools of the trade mixed with more banal objects.

Artist: Andrew Kuo
Work: My Relationship to Art as of May 10, 2009
Artist's Concept: An attempt to quantify his life and ideas in the form of data presentation in graphs which illuminate some of the tedious details and central concerns of his life.

Artist: Sean Landers
Work: Apathy
Artist's Concept: A ghostly litany of words including CRASH, DESOLATE, DOUBT, MELANCHOLY, DOOMED, WRETCHED, PHOBIC, and APATHY stand out from a list that sets the tone for a discouraged and discouraging painting. Here, Landers subverts the idea of figurative painting, and instead offers a glimpse into the intellectual and emotional aspects of the creative process through language as the content of his work.

Artist: Kalup Linzy
Work: Conversations wit de Churen V: As da Art World Might Turn (a video still)
Artist's Concept: In this work, Linzy turns his attention to the unspoken hopes and fears of artists. Here, the artist dressses up in a blonde wig to portray "Katonya," an emerging artist trying to find love, glory, and gallery representation in the big city. Katonya faces unbearable disappiontment, an opening night party in her honor for which no one has shown up. She reads a weepy speech to a non-existent audience. Here, the artist offers the viewer an embarrassingly honest account of an artist's fantasies of success even when confronted with a debacle.

Artist: Shana Lutker
Work: House with Art That I Dreamt That I Made
Artist's Concept: Lutker fabricated a scale-model of her childhood home and filled it with miniature versions of the art that she dreams she has made. She demonstrates the blurred boundaries between conscious and unconscious, real and imagined, public and personal.

Artist: Marco Rios
Work: Untitled #3 from the disruptions series
Artist's Concept: Most of this artist's work deals with a sense of failure to complete what he has begun and to find equilibrium in his life.

Artist: Joe Zane
Work: I wished I was a Giant
Artist's Concept: This display is a series of books and magazines that the artist made based on well-known art publications. He places himself in the text, on the covers, and in feature areas of these journals in an effort to express his unfulfilled wishes for critical attention and to find a place in art history.

As difficult as it was to stand in the midst of this angst-ridden art, I was informed by it. I learned that most artists, even those lucky enough to be exhibited in a renowned museum, share feelings of insecurity, unworthiness, guilt, depression, anxiety, fear, and pain. And yet, there's an underlying optimism that provides the fuel we need to paint the next picture, construct the next sculpture, film the next video, and take the next photograph. Underneath the angst, we DO believe in our ability to create and find meaning in our creations.

Your thoughts??

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Groundhogs, Winter, and Art

Well, folks, Punxsutawney Phil emerged this morning to see his shadow in Pennsylvania, which means that winter will last another six weeks (that is, if you can believe groundhogs). For those of you who aren't familiar with America's fascination with rodent weather prediction, it's actually based upon a German tradition which holds that if a hibernating animal sees its shadow on Feb. 2 — the Christian holiday of Candlemas — winter will last another six weeks. If no shadow is seen, legend says spring will come early.

For me, six more weeks of winter means six more weeks of confinement in my studio pursuing the elusive masterpiece. I don't mind this, but it would be nice to spend some time in the garden and hiking in the warm sun.

Contemplating winter reminds me of several famous paintings that depict an unusual climatological event. The first one was painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow, in 1565:

The second painting, by Emanuel Luetze in 1851, depicts Washington Crossing the Delaware, an event that occurred in December 1776.

For those of you who are familiar with the present-day winters in both Belgium and the Delaware River region, you know that they aren't as severe as the ones depicted in these two paintings. Were the two artists exaggerating for effect? Did Bruegel cover the ground with thick heavy snow to make the painting more interesting? Did Luetze put large icebergs in the Delaware to make Washington and his troops appear more courageous? No.

In fact, these two paintings span the two ends of a climate event known by science as The Little Ice Age, which began during the middle of the 16th century and ended in the middle of the 19th century. During that time, temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere dipped several degrees Celsius causing severe and prolonged winters and an expansion of sea ice and glaciers. The cause of this long cold spell was a solar event called the Maunder Minimum, when the sun's magnetic field was relatively stable resulting in fewer than normal sunspots. Therefore, the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth was diminished and temperatures plummeted.

The arts captured this event. Dickens described the cold, harsh winters in his books and Western artists captured them in their paintings. This current winter in my hemisphere, has some effect on my paintings. Being confined indoors means that I'm turning inward to examine my ideas a little more carefully. There are few distractions. However, I'm not tempted to begin painting winter scenes ... even if there are six more weeks of winter to endure.

What about you? How has winter affected your work?

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Mona Leo

There are moments when I must reread a news article because it seems far-fetched. An article that appeared in the January 24, 2010 issues of Timesonline is another one of those moments.

Apparently, a team of scientists from Italy’s National Committee for Cultural Heritage wants to exhume the remains of Leonardo da Vinci. Why? They want to examine his face to see if the Mona Lisa is a disguised self-portrait. According to this article, some scholars have suggested that Leonardo’s presumed homosexuality and love of riddles led him to paint himself as a woman. Evidently, an American “expert” named Lillian Schwartz used computer programs to establish similarities between Leonardo’s self-portrait and the features on the Mona Lisa. They also want to determine if Leonardo suffered from lead poisoning, a common affliction of artists back then. Leonardo died in 1519 at the age of 67. This means that, if he’s exhumed, they’ll have to use his skull to reconstruct his face. I guess forensic artists are good at that these days. If this article is correct, exhumation could take place this summer.

This raises all kinds of questions in my mind:

1. It’s frequently said that artists interpret some of their own characteristics in every portrait of others that they paint. Isn’t it possible that Leonardo’s portraits were personal interpretations that may have included some of his own features just by chance?

2. What if Leonardo did intentionally paint himself as Mona Lisa? Does this prove the motivations they're assigning him?

3. Although this is an interesting question for science, should it be investigated? I don’t really have an opinion, but wonder how this would benefit humanity or the planet. In other words, does it really matter?

4. What are the implications for the art world? Are there any?

All this reminds me of The DaVinci Code. What other artist has fueled so much speculation??