Monday, April 23, 2018

Inspiration in an Eggshell

I am sometimes asked what artist inspires me. I usually sit for a moment in silence as I contemplate all the artists whose work I’ve enjoyed. It is not that I don’t have one, but rather that I have many and their influence may not always be conscious. I don’t try to imitate a specific artist. I would rather find my own path, but what we view does have an impact, even one of which we may be unaware.

I often go through museums and in the ones that permit photographs, take photos of the work that speaks to me. Sometimes I pick a theme, such as portraits, and photograph only work within that category. What I like about this exercise is that it forces my responses to consciousness, rather than just letting them wash over me and then be forgotten.

When I return home, I take those photos and put them in an electronic file by museum and country or state. I have over 2100 images of artwork from 20 museums in the United States and another 20 overseas. I must confess that I seldom go back to them. What matters is the act of selection, curating my own gallery of sorts and identifying the work to which I respond.

Sometimes I am influenced by artists who I experience in different environments. When I spent a month in Lithuania in 2009, I rented the apartment of an artist,  Vytenis Lingys. Large canvases filled the walls, their dominant color a serene white, with bold color and iconography within that white stillness. When I returned home, I found myself missing those canvases, especially his use of white. I often think of his work when I use white in a painting and remind myself not to shy away from its use. Often, I use it in an entirely different way, washing it over a first attempt and letting suggestions of imagery emerge, but it was from his canvases that I learned to appreciate the emotional power of the space evoked by white.

Inspiration often comes from very unexpected sources and I am often intrigued by ideas that imagery symbolizes. I once was captivated by a bamboo bowl with eggshells embedded in its gold surface. I had given it as a gift to a family member who was going through a difficult time and in my note I wrote about the idea of brokenness and its role in our journey through life. It is no small coincidence that Leonard Cohen had died around then, and I recalled his writing Forget your perfect offering, There is a crack in everything, That's how the light gets in.

It took a year for that inspiration to bear fruit. We had returned from Yellowstone, a place of amazing texture and color, and I decided to do some small paintings to get myself painting again. As I considered the textural elements of the landscape I decided to experiment with eggshells. I gathered them from our breakfast and soaked them to remove the yolk. Later I put them in a plastic bag and crushed them into pieces. I used medium to attach them to the wooden surface on which I worked and then painted portions of them. I was surprised at how they often clumped together, appreciating the difficulty of creating that beautiful bowl with each separate piece so delicately laid out. Still the clumping meant I could build interesting structures. I  later delighted in the way they interacted with paint. Thus began my first foray into painting with eggshells.

Six months later I was working on a project for the 70th birthday of Israel. I've written about that in Walking on Eggshells. I was thinking of newness, birthdays, but also the fact that the State of Israel came to be in part out of the Holocaust, a time of brokenness and destruction. I noticed the bag of eggshells on my paint table, left over from that first attempt. I began to think about the significance of egg shells in conveying those concepts and particularly the fact that brokenness preceded the birth of Israel. I ended up incorporating the egg shells into the painting, not just as surface, but as symbolism.

More recently I have been working on a  painting for the Jewish Artists' Lab on the theme of Crossing the Threshold. I began to think of how we enter a threshold and imagined us leaving a trail of eggshells behind as we enter a place of newness, abandoning the familiar. It is a time when we are fragile ourselves, often fearful of the unknown.This time that trail led to a question mark of eggshells as we face uncertainty. I'll write more on this piece when I declare it finished.

Perhaps next time I am asked about inspiration, I should reply with a much more layered response - a bowl, Leonard Cohen and my breakfast all served as inspiration.

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