Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Embracing the Risk of Loss

I’ve learned over time that creativity requires space and time to emerge. That runs pretty counter to my tendency to fill my life full of activity. Last year I went against the grain. I consciously cut back on nonstop reading and on regular blog writing. What I really wanted to do was focus on my artwork and some broader writing objectives and those are things that fall to the bottom if my life is too full. 

We do what comes most easily to us. For me that is my analytic side which is fed by the genealogy research I do for others.  I’ve also learned that it can crowd out those quiet creative pursuits if I don’t make sufficient space. I certainly don’t want to abandon those analytic pursuits, but I am always working to balance the analytic and the creative. Both are strong threads within me and I try to honor them with my attention and energy.

Many creative people speak of establishing a practice, a time and place where one writes or paints. It is something I’ve done in fits and starts, but not, I must admit, with the real discipline required. “Next year,” I think. “I’ll do better with that practice.”   

This year I did some painting, but not with the focus I sought until later in the year. I worked with a project where I partnered with an Israeli artist and began to experiment with collage as a means to incorporate her work into my own. I liked the results and decided to do some small collages (12”x12”) as experiments. I sold one of them recently and even as I hated to part with it, I was delighted at the connection the buyer felt to the piece that also spoke to me. 

Now I am working on a project within the Artists Lab that is focused on the environment, global warming and climate change. I am finding some themes I was exploring about people – Absence and Presence, might also bear a connection to climate as our world changes around us. I am often taking a step back to see the still larger and all-embracing theme. It is in part about loss, a theme built into life itself. But it is not just human life, the bigger theme of loss embraces everything in our world. Some loss is natural, part of a natural life cycle. Some is hastened by our actions and has broader consequences for the world in which we live. 

I began with the familiar, with paintings overlaying past paintings and have created several that please me. Then I decided to continue with my experimental collages, but with themes related to nature and its elements that are under threat. 

As I work with collage, I think of my mother. She became a collage artist late in life as she lost memory. She had been an avid reader and could no longer retain the thread of a story. Loss created a space that she sought to fill with new purpose and meaning. I consider whether loss well-used is really a gift. We just need to recognize it as such.

One day as I sat with her at the kitchen table watching her collage, I asked her how she got into this and why she did what she did. “Everybody does something,” she said. “This is what I do! And you could do this too, Susan,” she added.

I chuckled at the time, but now I find myself wondering if she knew something I didn’t as I experiment with collages, forming semi-abstract imagery that speaks to something within me. It begins with photos, whatever captures my eye. I walk each week with friends and am often taking photos of trees, clouds and reflections. I have a file of photos titled Trees, another Clouds, and often draw on them as I begin a collage. I must confess that when I embark on a collage, it makes me a bit nervous, definitely a sign that it is forcing me out of my comfort zone. Once I glue it down it is harder to remove or cover than paint. I remind myself that worst case it is only a small loss of canvas and an unsuccessful effort could result in a new and interesting base as I sand and scrape it away. Creation and loss are two sides of the same coin. Sometimes you have to let something go, to re-create. There is a subconscious process involved with working with form, image and color. I am finding that it can result in great satisfaction when it succeeds.

So as the year concludes, I look forward to building on what I've begun, exploring a process that makes me nervous because I can't control it, unless I learn to embrace and build on the risk of loss. 

Friday, December 6, 2019

A Confluence of Influences

When people come through my studio, they often talk with me about my artwork. “How long does it take to do a painting?” they ask. I am amused by the question, not sure when I should start the stopwatch, or stop it. There is a lot of work that occurs long before brush meets canvas. Some of it doesn’t look like work to outside eyes. When I left my job, I soon learned that artwork does not conform to the production mentality that I once brought to my work life.  It happens in its own time and at its own pace. The process involves opening your eyes and mind to take in information that may or may not find its way to a painting.

I am working on a new subject that seems to be coming from a confluence of influences.  Recently I read the Pulitzer-prize-winning book, The Overstory, by Richard Powers. The book is about trees as experienced through a human lens. It explores the impact of deforestation on the climate and shares the stories of several individuals that all relate to trees. Ultimately the stories converge.  It is an unusual book and I found it thought-provoking. It made me think about the ecosystem within a tree, what we lose when a mature tree is taken down and its interrelationship with flooding and climate change. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about trees and seeing them through fresh eyes. And of course, once an idea finds its way into my head, I notice associations everywhere I turn.

Soon after I read the book, my husband and I went to the Grand Canyon where I fell in love with the junipers with their elegant twisting trunks dancing on the canyon’s edge, blue berries peek from foliage, a hidden surprise. Most of my pictures have a juniper framing the canyon. 

When we returned it was time to kick off the 7th year of the Jewish Artists Lab.  Its topic this year is Muddy Waters, an exploration of climate change and the environment through the lens of Jewish text. We study text for eight months and then create artwork on the theme for an exhibition. In preparation, I did a lot of reading on the topic, specifically its relationship to my latest fascination with trees. 

At our first meeting of the lab we were asked to bring an image that speaks to the topic. I brought a photograph of a tree taken by Beth Moon, a photographer who has been taking pictures of the oldest trees in the world. Some are as old as 5000 years and are beautiful and mysterious. The wonder I felt in viewing her photographs echoed the wonder that was stirred by The Overstory.

The Whittinghame Yew-Beth Moon photographer
Soon it was time to head down to Chicago for Thanksgiving where we visited the museums and galleries. Surprisingly many galleries had subject matter related to trees. Some built trees out of veneer, others painted them.   Viewing art always makes me want to paint which is a good thing as I’ve been a bit stuck, trying to figure out a new direction which engages me. How does one get unstuck? Viewing art is one approach, but sometimes just picking up a paintbrush to do anything is a first step.

When I came back from travels in South Dakota, I was taken with the skies that so dominated the landscape. To loosen up, I took an image of clouds and painted them up close.  When I turned it upside down it reminded me of water. 

Water and trees are closely related. A few years ago, a neighbor took down a number of mature trees to put up a sports court. Our next-door neighbor then lost half his yard to flooding as a permanent pond took residence. Trees can absorb 100 gallons of water daily so the loss of the trees had an impact on the broader community.
Goodby Dutch!

His dilemma will only worsen as we recently diagnosed a tree with Dutch Elm disease. It sits between our two houses and unfortunately, we will be taking it down. I am surprised at how much its prospective absence saddens me. I photographed its presence as my recent work has explored the concept of absence and presence. That too may be a related direction on which to build.

Just this week, I started to paint. I took the canvas of clouds transformed to water and began to paint tree stumps across it.  They looked mysterious, their limbs dancing against the tide.  It will change many times over before I deem it done. It may be just my first foray into a series. Right now, I just paint to see where it takes me.

One of the things that intrigues me is the idea that trees bear witness. Their rings represent each season that they live through and reflect the climate of those times. They are recorders of history. I often find a title before I find a painting. Bearing Witness comes to mind.

So, let me trace my path. From reading about trees to viewing trees to lab project on environment to research to viewing artwork on trees to actually losing a tree. All before I picked up a brush. Do I count that time that preceded painting when I was circling the topic even before I knew it was the topic?  And of course, there is the painting itself. Will it come together quickly or will it evolve over months?