Friday, April 25, 2014

A Flash of Light

I've written before of the sketchbook project we are doing in the Artists' Lab. We each begin with an accordion fold sketchbook, determine a theme related to light and create an image or text. We then send it on to other artists within a group of artists in Minneapolis, Madison and Milwaukee. Each artist adds to it and then sends it on to the next. Recently I got my first sketchbook from another artist, in this case a poet.

I found the sketchbook project a bit intimidating until I discovered an ap on the iPad called Doodle Buddy. I first started using it to sketch out paintings when I would wake up with an idea. Often I would reach for my iPad to record the image before it disappeared into the recesses of memory. Originally I was doing rough sketches, but then I began to experiment with more of the program capabilities and learned that I could develop a more complete image. It allows you to control the width of the line and the choice of colors. And you can smudge, my favorite technique. No tools or artist supplies are required, just your finger and a color printer. And miracle of miracles, there is an undo button, something I've often wished for when I paint.

In this case the theme was the theatricality of light and shadow that transforms an ordinary moment into something charged. The poem that was written was about a man lighting a cigarette and the charged nature of the moment. I began playing around with imagery that would accompany the poem and did a simple face cupping a cigarette, smoke emerging and an ember glowing.

Then we went on a trip to California where we drove along the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles. As night fell we passed cars on narrow roads and the green of their dashboard would cast an otherworldly glow in that split second when one glimpses the driver in the blur of headlights. One night at 2am when I lay awake thinking about what to draw, I decided to see if I could capture that moment. Then I decided I needed the opposing page to reflect the view ahead of our car in the opposite lane. I started with a black background and drew with white.

I'm not sure what it is about drawing on my iPad that lifted the intimidation, but I think it has something to do with not having to think about materials or working directly in the book. And if I don't like it, I just let it go and start again. It actually encourages more of an experimental approach for me and best of all it is there when inspiration strikes, often in the wee hours of night.

While we were in California I acquired a "doodle buddy" in my five year old grandson by teaching him to draw on the iPad. Rather amazing how quickly a five-year old figures out how to use an ap and teaches me new things too. I began to draw for him the things we saw during the day, from macaws to a snapping turtle in the moment before he swallowed a gold fish. He drew sharks and whales, his current fascination. When he finished a drawing he'd ask me to email it to his mom and then move onto the next. When we left his mom asked him his favorite part of our visit and he replied learning how to smudge. Ah, a kindred spirit.

Monday, April 21, 2014

To Do

Figure out how trees bow
Make alephs spark yellow in smoke
Redo the stars in the sky
Give the moon room to breath

How's that for a to do list? That's how I started my latest work in the studio. Can you see how poetry evolves quite naturally?

         Tree Blessings
Trees bend
Bestowing blessings,
Gently they incline their heads,
A gentle nod.
Or do their backs curve,
Shadowed neath the arch,
Looming large above
Perhaps a curtsy
Wider at the bottom
Boughs extend
As tops tip forward daintily,
A moonbeam
Trapped in treetops
Shines its grace
I'm actually trying to figure out how trees bestow their blessings. A phrase from a poem, not even sure how it arose and now I try to picture it. I began with a gentle nod of the treetop, but may play with different imagery of trees bowing or curtsying.

I am struck by the word "play". I was recently told by a five year old grandson that I say that a lot as I taught him how to draw on an iPad ap. Play with it. Experiment, I coached. I suspect he knows how to play better than I do, but there is an element of play in all of this. Sometimes play leads us in interesting directions. Play requires some trust. What if it doesn't work? We slowly learn to trust that if it doesn't we can follow our trail of breadcrumbs out of the forest. The painting will survive our explorations.

So small adjustments now. A line I like by the train tracks. Some color in the smoke, some bricks in the chimney. Treetops gently incline, sparks of yellow and room for the moon to breath.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Exploring One Possibility

Back to the studio for round two. This is more difficult. The first day of painting is hard in a different way. I have to tackle virgin canvas, make that first mark. With acrylic or oil however, I have some forgiveness. I can always paint over it. My expectations are lower. All I need to do is cover the canvas, block in forms and color where I expect them to go. Day 2 is when the real work begins.

Day 1
Preparatory small painting
I had begun by roughing out a small painting of the forest so some of this had already been attempted. Now I had a bigger canvas and had to incorporate additional imagery.  I was losing the peacefulness of the forest image and part of me mourned that loss, the loss of possibility, closing one door to open another. I held my hand before my right eye, covering the side with the chimney and imagined all forest, all peaceful, no disturbing column of death.

 But I accede to my friend's insistence that they should co-exist and forge ahead. Today I fine-tune and develop, gaining and losing. The gain of definition, sharper focus, the loss of other possibilities without destroying this possibility.

Where to start? I laid out a roadmap in my last post. Listen to yourself I remind the painter. First those clouds of smoke. I like to paint smoke, but more isn't always better. Then I shift to flames. How do I make them more flamelike? I add streaks of white and then glaze it with my favorite iron oxide to add some brightness. 

I build the structure of the trees, adding shadows, limbs within, a trunk, greenish segments between dustings of snow. I step back and observe the image as it begins to emerge.

Day 2
Back to the chimney with reddish brick tones and a darkened side to echo the dark side of the train cars. Are the train cars too short? Should I combine them? A quick search on Google finds cars of all lengths. I remember the one at Auschwitz was short. I decide to leave them, besides I like the shapes it creates when one car abuts another.

Figures. My friend insisted on figures. I knock a door into one of my train cars and sketch a row of figures entering the car, first in black, then white modeled over it. My friend had told me they wore dresses so I sketch in the form of women in dresses. On the other side of the train I do a more random gathering of people. Hard to make them look up in a little sketch, but I make their heads a horizontal oval in the form of one looking up.

Remember I wrote of using the letter aleph (א) to represent the sparks in the fire and the stars above. I took a pointed tool and dipped it in white paint and began to inscribe alephs in the sky, representing hope and souls. I glazed over the sparks with transparent yellow until they are subtle forms. Finally the moon. I imagine a full moon peeking from the smoke. The same moon shines over both horrors and beauty, but I draw its moonbeams down into the forest. Beams of hope, a blessing.

Then back to shadows. I add a shadow for the chimney, brighten the snow in some areas, darken it with shadow in others. So what next? Is there a to do list?

 In my omnipotent role in this universe I've created, I can move stars around. Having plunked the moon in the midst of my already created universe, I think I need to give it some room to breathe. Perhaps I will have my stars echo the pattern of the people below, a subtle repetition of pattern. Beyond that I need to live with it for awhile. At this stage changes emerge more gradually. When I return to my studio I will view it through fresh eyes and adjust as necessary. One of my favorite things to do in analyzing a painting is to segment it on my iPad and examine it in sections. Can each segment stand alone and create an engaging image. Here are a few of the segments. So far it holds promise.

Entering Boxcar
In the Forest

Fire and Moon
Moon and Trees

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Under Construction

I haven't written lately, but not for lack of activity. Yet many of my efforts feel as if they are in process, not ready to share until I arrive at a more finished state that I can unveil with a flourish....Ta da! I remind myself that much of our life we are under construction, preparing for that final Ta Da. Why do we focus so much on a finished state when so much of our life is really about process?

I have many efforts half formed. Speeches to prepare, grants to write, shows to enter, projects to propose and paintings to paint. Often the initial step has been taken as I await response. The Artists' Lab show is fast approaching and I am struggling with what artwork I will exhibit. Of course first I have to create it. The theme is light and it is almost too broad. I circle around it, trying to decide where I should alight.

I started by doing some brainstorming with my friend and sometimes muse. In the lab exhibit last year I had told one of her stories from the Holocaust coupled with poetry. That had gotten me working on a series based on her stories which I hope to use in Holocaust education. Now she recounted her experiences with light during that time. She noted that sometimes light was frightening for it meant exposure. Darkness by contrast provided a sense of safety, a place to hide.When I asked her about images of light and darkness that stayed with her, she recalled that the crematorium at Auschwitz spewed fire at night and they saw flames ascend through a small window at the top of the barracks.

She also told me of a contrasting moment of beauty amidst darkness. When she arrived at Bergen Belsen they were released from the box cars. . Before them was a pine forest, a blue black sky studded with stars and a dusting of snow on the trees. It was the first time for many months that they were in the outdoors and the sheer beauty of it reminded her of a world with hope.To help me find my way into the imagery I began to write poetry. Sometimes I paint first and then write poetry to distill the painting. In this case, I wrote poetry first and then moved into painting.

I did a small painting of the image of the forest, but decided I needed it to be tall to create the sense of majesty that I imagined. I was considering a painting of the forest, but she felt it was important to juxtapose the flames of the crematorium with the beauty of the forest. I was having a hard time imagining how I could meld the imagery together, but decided to begin painting and see where it would take me. But first I had to decide what size canvas would suit this image. I settled on two feet by four feet, high enough to allow for box cars, trees, chimney and sky, small enough to fit within the three feet of wall we have been allotted.

I've written a series of poems that address light and darkness from two perspectives, the Holocaust and sight. My friend is now legally blind and I have been intrigued by how one preserves one's inner light in the face of darkness, a concept applicable to both perspectives. It also creates an interesting process as she describes an image to me from her inner eye which I then try to create and describe back to her. It reminds me of an experience I had painting my grandmother and sending my iterations to my mother. She had told me that my painting didn't reflect the work worn nature of her mother's hands. I worked on the painting and sent an image to her multiple times until her mother stepped out of the image to her. It is a filtering through the memory of another person expressed to yet someone else.

Here's the segment of poetry that speaks to the Holocaust imagery my friend had described.

On the Eve of Your 21st Birthday

Light was often your enemy
Furnaces spewed fire
in the night
As souls escaped
in final release.
Darkness your friend
You flattened yourself
against the wall
of the darkened stairwell
Safe from the probing tongues of bayonets
And sometimes hope emerged
Hidden in the guise of darkness.
On the eve of your twenty-first birthday
You stepped from a boxcar,
A sky of midnight blue,
Stars shining against its darkness,
Evergreens dusted with snow
Bent to bestow their blessing

And here's my initial attempt after four hours of painting, basically trying to cover the canvas before I begin to fine-tune. I take a photo of my work before leaving the studio and study it, seeing elements I want to change when I return. For example in hindsight I got a bit carried away with the smoke and will work on that again. I still have some figures to add to the painting. My friend imagined people entering and exiting the train. I am picturing them entering on one side in the far right corner, but exiting from the other side of the train, forming an S curve to draw your eye in. And they will be looking up, their attention focused on the sky. I also need to develop the sky and decide if I am going to include the moon and if so where, perhaps peeking through the smoke of the chimney.

In the Lab we talked about Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz (1760-1827) who considered the letter aleph which represents the name of God. He linked it to mankind in a surprising way, noting that it echoes the form of our face. If we break it down to its component parts we see two yuds and a vav, two eyes and a nose, figuratively holding God before us in our own face. I think of it as a metaphor for light and think I may try to form the stars out of alephs as well as the souls escaping through the chimney as sparks.

I don't often share my work in process, it feels a bit like being caught half dressed or running into someone you know at the grocery store when you're looking pretty scruffy. In the next few entries, I invite you to go through this process with me. Keep in mind, it has been known to end with me painting an image out and starting anew.