Wednesday, July 17, 2019

It's been over a year since my last post about my challenges around being a mom and an artist. And with a second baby due in two weeks, I realized I better get another (possibly annual) blog post in ASAP!

Largely unconsciously, my work has been moving towards greater abstraction. Oddly enough this hadn't occurred to me until a show in May, when it was pointed out with criticism on the gallery comment page, and frequently, with mixed reviews, since then. I think this is because I've started down this path frequently for years, pushing abstraction in paintings here and there, so to me the change was so gradual that I didn't notice. Secondly, it just feels natural to become more confident and decisive in simplifying forms and emboldening brushstrokes to be themselves rather than trying to look like a fastideous representation of the subject. 

Some of my favorite artists began as representational painters and gradually became pure staunch abstract painters - Rothko and Mondrian, to name a few. It seems for many artists, the evolution of their work moves towards distillation - clarifying for themselves what is and is not important in the way they see the world around them. One of my favorite quotes along these lines comes from Georgia O'Keefe: 

“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”

And here's another musing I recently found from Arshile Gorky:

“Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes....Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.” ― Arshile Gorky

Both quotes really strike home for me in my work. Over the years, my foregrounds have become bolder and less worked, leaving the details for the viewer to fill with imagination and experience rather than being spelled out. This helps the viewer feel physically present in the painting, as if they are standing or sitting in the foreground themselves. I leave the details for the more distant horizon - perhaps as a way of expressing how we can often see things more clearly with more distance. By making details of the image less specific, the image can be experienced more personally, as each person fills in the details from their own experience. 

Below I have included pairs of paintings - the first in each pair from about 10-15 years ago, the second within the last couple years. Though I sometimes miss the ability to focus in on small, beautiful details of the natural world, the direction I've gone in feels natural and right for my own process of "selection, elimination, and emphasis." I see the creative evolution as parallel to one's own personal evolution - there is something valuable about every phase of life, and because it is impossible to go back and recapture or hang on to who we were in our childhood, or 20's, or 30's, it is important to recognize and embrace each season of our lives, especially the current one.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Photo by Brooke Burton, 2017

I find myself sitting in the sun under a big blue spring sky. I am sitting on a wooden bench on the patio of Push and Pour coffeeshop, relishing the warmth and the buzz that is Garden City right now.  I hear nearby bulldozers and hammers and drills and builders calling out instructions. My tiny new studio is four blocks away. I have not written a blog post in two years. (because) I am the mother of a two-year old.

Just wanted to set the scene.

Impulses to write posts have bubbled up occasionally for me for the past couple years. But either they seemed too mother-as-artist focused - does everything really have to be about my baby? Or, too presumptuous - what new thoughts can I possibly add to the conversation of what it's like to be a mother and artist. And then again, too much about motherhood.

This unease about my voice as an artist suddenly intertwining with my experiences as a mother seems to be a common predicament based on conversations I've had with other artist-parents, and a few encounters I've had since my daughter Mairead was born. A submission to a local paper was rejected last minute because "we don't do baby stuff." My daughter had a huge "poonami" at one exhibition opening, and spit up all over my silk dress at another. I've gotten the stink-eye trying to meet clients with a baby in tow. It seems there is both external and internal pressure to insulate one's motherhood from one's professional life, even when, up til now, the inspiration for my work has been inextricably intertwined with my personal life to no great notice. To me, the creation of paintings of my daughter is not "baby stuff" - it's my life. I paint what is important to me at the moment. I am feeling ambivalent about "baby stuff." Time to get back to Real Work.

I wonder if this is a situation fairly unique to artists - to those for whom their work is formed directly from the fabric of their lives. For me the pressure I feel to separate work and family life has been countered by a stronger desire to merge the two (hence the entire book of portraits of my daughter I published last year). I have had many confusing moments where I was lovingly painting a portrait of Mairead while feeling simultaneously perturbed by my toddler pounding on my studio door, crying "Mama." Recently I've been pondering these polarizing feelings I've experienced as a mother.

Polarizing seems to be a fitting word for the experience of motherhood. I am chuckling to myself right now, just realizing how fitting it is to this blog post that an author recently asked permission to use the photo above of Raidy pulling on my arm as I try to paint as a cover image for her book about "Maternal ambivalence." Maternal ambivalence is defined by Dr. Barbara Almond in her book "The Monster Within: The Hidden Side Of Motherhood" as "that mixture of loving and hating feelings that all mothers experience toward their children and the anxiety, shame, and guilt that the negative feelings engender in them." 

This definition strangely fits the way I and other artists I've talked to often feel about our art. Creative energy and its offspring, whether human or not, seems to come with a whole lot of opposing emotions. In my artwork, I thrive off this tension - I enjoy every bit of the push and pull I experience in creating a work of art - the tension between visual elements, between the real and the ideal, between unbound potential and tangible result. I suppose my challenge at the moment is to find a sense trust that the tension between being a mom and being an artist will challenge both to grow.
Finding a place of calm and ease in a web of dynamic tension. And perhaps that is something that is not unique to motherhood, but for everyone experiencing the fullness of life.

Hopefully I'll check back in again before two years have gone by...but no promises!

"Mom and Raidy in the Cave" 2016 oil and wax on linen 24"x24" - From "Paintings for Mairead"

Thursday, April 7, 2016

What is it good for?

A college painting professor of mine was once talking about sometimes feeling a lack of meaning or purpose in being an artist. Coming from a very successful, passionate painter, this surprised me and apparently struck close to home, as I still remember his musings 15 years later.  I imagine that this is a common thought cycle for artists - is what we do extravagant, navel gazing, and at worst, useless? I admittedly sometimes find myself critical of my life's work - am I just creating more STUFF in a world where humans already create too much stuff? It is ironic to me that I am both a dedicated purger of personal belongings and a creator of things.

Since having a daughter in February, these thoughts have been creeping in a little more seriously. Now time spent in the studio means time away from my quickly growing and changing baby, so it better be worthwhile and meaningful and make her world better somehow.

In his discussion of purpose as an artist, my professor mentioned that his brother was an eye surgeon. He said that he looked at his brother's work, how his skills and actions directly improved his patients' lives, and was envious. Someone who could not see when he came into his office left with sight.

This morning though I woke up with that story in my head, and had this thought - if it is honorable to help someone see, if that gift changes their lives, then isn't it just as honorable to create beautiful things for people to use that gift for? What is full health and capacities of the senses for if not to enjoy the beauty in this world?

The photo above of Mairead at 7 weeks old depicts her turning her head to the left, her non-preferred side, to gaze up at a painting hanging over the bed. She loves to look at this painting, particularly the snow and dirt-striped hillside on the bottom left. As she looks, she gurgles and squeaks and flails her arms and legs in delight. And I think, if even just this little baby of mine gets so much pleasure from the images I paint, it is worthwhile work.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Art. Business.

Befriending Time & Place, November 2014  
Gallery five18, Boise

In Lynn Basa's book, The Artist's Guide to Public Art, the author interviews a group of successful public artists, asking each a series of questions. The most fascinating answers to me were to the question, "What percentage of your time is spend exclusively on art-making, versus tending to business needs?" (Basa p.203). Here is a summary of the 9 artists' answers:

100% to both (no delineation between art-making and business) - one artist
50% art-making, 50% business - one artist
20% art-making, 80% business - one artist
15% art-making, 85% business - one artist
10% art-making, 90% business - two artists
5% art-making, 95% business - one artist
All weekend hours art-making, all weekday hours business - one artist

If you are an artist, especially one who specializes in public art, these results are probably not surprising to you. Reading this chapter, I became curious about the way I spend my time as a professional artist. Mostly for my own benefit, I'm going to break down a typical week of activity in the studio:

Sunday -
2 hours writing email to mailing list (monthly or bi-weekly)
2 hours taking reference images

Monday -
2 hours errands (picking up prints, exchanging work at the gallery, trip to the hardware store etc etc)
1 hour photo organization (preparing reference images, etc)
1 hour - work up mock-up and quote for new client
3 hours art-making in the afternoon
2 hours answering emails, miscellaneous computer projects (could include creating marketing material for upcoming shows, posting on social media, ordering prints, updating price sheets and look-book, planning client events, researching new business opportunities).

Tuesday -
1 hour prep for client meeting
1 hour - meet client at studio or gallery to discuss or show work
2 hours deliver artwork to another client
1-2 hours art-making in afternoon
1 hour answering emails, miscellaneous computer projects

Studio day! My creative limit is about 3 hours at a time, so a studio day is often spending about 5 hours in the morning prepping new canvases, organizing my studio, finding reference images, etc - and then a 3-4 hour painting session in the afternoon.
1 hour answering emails, miscellaneous computer projects

Thursday - (today!)
3 hours in the morning - monthly accounting and blog
1 hour answering emails, miscellaneous computer projects
1-2 hours art-making in the afternoon (hopefully)
4 hours in the evening First Thursday at the gallery (monthly) or attending other artists' events

Friday -
3-4 hours art-making
2 hours packaging and shipping artwork
3 hours updating website/Etsy shop and running inventory (imaging new work, updating all available work folders and image library)
1 hour answering emails, miscellaneous computer projects

Saturday -
2-3 hours art-making
2 hours attending other artists' events

art-making time: 18-23 hours
other activities: 32 hours
I spend 32-41% of my working hours actively art-making

This is not to say that every week is the same - some weeks I might hardly paint at all because I am so busy with other tasks. Other weeks I put the brakes on this business work and gift myself a few blissful, full days painting with music playing. And, I must offer the disclaimer that the art-making times listed are fairly optimistic - unfortunately often these are the hours that get sacrificed if a client wants to see a piece in the gallery or I get stuck on some computer issue.

Honestly I'm not sure where I'm going with this blog post - in part I simply like to stay aware of how I am using my time. I often find myself feeling guilty no matter what I am doing - if I am painting, I should be updating my website and finding new clients. If I am updating my website or running to town to approve new prints, I feel guilty for not being in my studio. I'd imagine (and am soon to find out) that this push and pull is rather like juggling a work schedule and parenting commitments. (Still childless for another month, my artwork is still my sole offspring).

But perhaps those who have been interested to read this post who are not artists have gained a little insight into the backside of the business, and my fellow art-makers feel some company in their own struggles to find a satisfying balance between the time-consuming nuts and bolts of being an artist and the substantial amount of creative time it takes to create a work of art.

Not just for artists, but for all those who do what they love for a living - this seemingly "lucky" circumstance is created by a whole lot of discipline and hard work (not to mention massive financial re-investment...about 50% for me) - basically a whole extra job that yields the opportunity to do the fun part. And yes, it's worth it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

tinyExpanse 365 Y1 (2013-2014)

Sitting down to write today, I see that it has been nearly a year since my last blog entry! I've missed the clarity that writing on a regular basis gives me for my work in this profession where one makes his or her own rules entirely. Today seemed like a fitting day to reflect, having completed my 365th day of a year of painting last night.

This was the second time I have completed this project, titled "tinyExpanse 365". I took a 2 month break between the two years, and spontaneously began the second year when I started to miss the daily practice of painting - I had stopped noticing my surroundings as consciously every day. And hey, I'd done it before, I could do it again!

However I was really surprised by how different my experiences were from the first year to the second. If tinyExpanse 365 Y1 can be described by the word - ADVENTURE, tinyExpanse 365 Y2 can be summed up by the word, DETERMINATION.

And most of my challenges over the last 365 days (well, 180 of those at least) can be summed up with one word: pregnancy.

From December 2nd, 2014 - June 2015, the project was pretty smooth sailing.  When my partner Sean and I found out in June that we were expecting a baby in February 2016, things started to get a little bumpy. In a mean twist of fate, my beloved oil paint became my most expedient nausea trigger, and in particular, the 3"x3" tinyExpanse canvases. Something about focusing on that little square while smelling the paints, even when outdoors, really got to me. More than one poor mountain biker witnessed my post painting purging in the foothills. My daily paintings were often  not a spontaneous act of joy but a determined effort to keep my commitment to the project.

On top of the nausea there was some degree of distraction, changed priorities, and exhaustion to deal with. I learned quickly how motherhood was going to take my focus away from my career very quickly, and how disciplined I would have to stay to keep my paintings moving forward. I learned also how physical the creative process is, and grew in admiration for artists I know of who have worked through illnesses, often life-long ones that have no due date in site.

I knew early on that the second year could not top the first in terms of range and scope of landscapes explored. My travels from 2013-2014 took me all over Idaho in my collaborations with Idaho Conservation League, as well as to California, Iowa, New York, Colorado, Finland, and Iceland. This constant change in scenery and perspective kept me eager to get out my painting box each and every day. Being more house-bound this year forced me to explore the familiar and the simple things a little bit more attentively. The process reminded me of how I used to tell my yoga students to try to find something new in downward facing dog each time, how it was possible for the familiar to never lose a sense of discovery. I found this to be a useful exercise in painting - what new little angles of the neighbor's roof could I find? Or how different the same view looked in different seasons, weather, or times of day.

I'm sure there will be a host of new lessons I will learn once the baby is already here, but I've got plenty to chew on for the next couple months!

Today greets me with a few sentiments - I can't help but admit that relief is the predominant one. But I also feel that the struggles of the last five months have helped me become more capable of the focus that will be needed ahead as an artist as well as a mom. And a lot more compassionate towards myself and others who make a living from their creative processes. A livelihood is a whole lot of pressure to put on one's inner inspiration, but I think in the end this pressure can help one dig a little deeper and distill what is most important to create a lot more clearly.

About to grow out of my carhardts...

Sunday, January 4, 2015

"Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant - there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing." - Georgia O'Keefe

This first blog of 2015 was prompted by a heartfelt email from an emerging artist in New Orleans. Her questions prompted much thought and desire to share some of my thoughts as a mid-career artist, still struggling myself to find the answers in this uniquely unprescribed career.  I offer these musings from my own humble perspective, just some habits and practices that have become clearly effective and important to me on my own path as an artist. 

Thank you for your questions, MM!

What is a logical first step to get started as a painter? 

Always start with your own work. Spend time in your studio/(corner of the room) EVERYDAY, even if it is only 20 minutes. Can you get to the point where making art is as automatic as eating lunch? Create work that you love and want to be around. When you start to considering exhibiting your work, take realistic stock of where you are in your development - are you ready to put it out to the public? Are you behind it 100% so that even when it gets criticized or ignored, you can still be proud of it? Get to this point before you put it out there, as there is nothing worse than witnessing critical eyes confirm your doubt about your own work, and nothing better than standing confidently unaffected when critical eyes disregard work you know is good and true.  Make sure your work embodies a heartfelt effort, and then boldly start sharing it in a way that feels right. This is different than feeling like your work is perfect or comparing it to others. Do you love it? Is it honest? That's what matters, and that's what will give you the confidence to share your work and continue evolving your artistic language.

Second, explore the art culture where you live. How to other artists share/sell their work? What venues haven't been tapped into where you can envision your work displayed? Is there a place for a pop-up show? Do you have a few artists friends who you can join forces with and put on an exhibition? Just explore the possibilities where you are, and if there aren't good ones for you at this time, find a way to create them. Even if it's inviting friends to your living room for a one night show. You just have to start somewhere! And then you will find your way, find out what your style in the world of art business is. And what keeps you creating the best work you can. Online venues such as Etsy are also a good place to start. The sooner you can get an online presence with a website or shop the better. Make sure you are putting out only high quality images of your work. The way you present your work to the public reflects the respect you have for it. 

What are the most difficult aspects of painting professionally?

Keeping studio time sacred, and your artwork unaffected by the demands of the market. This being said, every artist has the option of finding his or her own relationship with the market, and sometimes it is very satisfying and lucrative to create something you know sells well. I do not believe this is a conflict of interest - it's more of a bracket of questions - 1. Is this work true to my own aesthetic and passion? 2. Is this work marketable? As long as one keeps #1 the most important, keeping an eye on the market will not be soul-sucking. And a no answer to #2 doesn't mean you shouldn't be making that particular work, just be realistic about it being financially lucrative. Keeping studio time sacred is part of the process of prioritizing your own true work over that which is simply easy to sell - spend time each day creating in a way that is focused only on the work at hand, not where it is going to sell or is it time effective. Just dive in without distractions. This gets tough the more one relies on selling art as a primary source of income. 

Another difficulty artists face is that professional success in terms of either creating great work or supporting oneself financially is not a permanent pinnacle that one reaches and rests upon. We have to do it again. And again. And again. The cycle of inspiration, creation, and exhibition, thankfully and painfully, goes on and on. 

What are the best aspects of painting professionally?

I love that having an artistic practice conditions me to being awake and alert to the beauty in the world. The poet Kathleen Raine says of this awareness, "Strangest of all is the ease with which the vision is lost. Consciousness contracts. We forget over and over again until recollection is stirred by some icon of that beauty. Then we remember and wonder why we ever forgot.  For me, the best part of making art  is that every day one is tasked to define and notice beauty. And even better, this is an opportunity available to EVERYONE (which is why I love to teach art).  Sharing my work, which is perhaps what officially merits someone being recognized as an artist, gives me the chance to inspire others to notice what I find beautiful in the world.  Lastly, earning money from doing what I love, which allows me to do more of what I love, is a tremendous gift for which I am very grateful.

What is it like to be part of an artistic community?

For the introverted personality that often accompanies artistic inclinations, it is easy for artists to become isolated in the studio. It is also easy to fall into a defensive, competitive relationship with other artists or the "art world." But over the years since I've been painting full time, and especially since my move to the big town/little city of Boise, Idaho, I have realized the richness that comes with being part of a community of creative people. An artistic vision is something that can never be copied or stolen, only inspired, but sharing. And the market is big enough for us all. For every artist there is a tribe of people to whom his or her work will speak, and the success of each artist in a community The more I come to respect the process of other artists, whose work is may be both very different and similar to mine, the more I respect my own process and value what my work brings others. One more recent step I have taken is to begin purchasing artwork from other artists. Though my budget is small, this commitment to financially investing in other people's work gives me the joy and perspective of a buyer, a recipient of someone else's creative vision. One last thought - a great opportunity a community of artists offers is the working together to create group exhibitions and collaborations, which are not only fun and inspiring, but keep a fresh flow of new art-loving viewers discovering your work. The wider range of artists one can work with, the wider range of potential clients are exposed to your work. 

What do you need to do to have your work shown? 

Foremost, this goes back to the first question. Focus on creating work that is meaningful and beautiful to you. Explore the range of ways artists in your community and beyond share and sell their work and pick or create opportunities that feel suitable for you. Then, make sure you cross your T's and dot your i's. From the perspective of a gallery manager, if an artist delivers a clean product in all aspects of the presentation (digital images, communication, reliability, and of course the work itself), their job is MUCH easier. If it takes much time for you to correctly format your own digital images, how can you expect a gallery owner or art dealer to do so for 40-100 artists?  Provide these people with requested items formatted EXACTLY as they request, whether it seems important to you or not. They have their reasons. Make it as easy as possible for someone to have a professional relationship with your work they will be much more eager to represent you.

What makes artists successful?

See the question above for the nuts and bolts part of this - basically take responsibility of the quality and honesty of your work, and have your act together. But, also, define what success is to you. As my childhood hero Georgia O'Keefe said in the opening quote, "Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant - there is not such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing."(This quote came from a great speech I just read by MacArthur genius award winner Teresita Fernandez, very worth a further look).

In summary - commit to some sort of daily creative practice, keep your eyes open to opportunities where your quirks that ultimately guide your artistic vision can be appreciated and expanded, and then let go of expectations. And then do it again

Unique perspectives - 4 student paintings

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A year in review…

Idaho Conservation League asked me to write some thoughts about my year as their first Artist in Residence, a program that will continue in 2015 with the talented photographer Peter Lovera.

My 2014 residency with ICL was a year of discovery and purpose. New landscapes I had the opportunity to explore included the Boulder White Clouds as seen from Railroad Ridge, the serene and friendly shores of Priest Lake, the Palouse (to be revisited soon!), Lake Pend Oreille and Schweitzer, and many places between. I gained a deepened appreciation of and intimacy with our Boise Foothills. And still I feel I have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Idaho's vast and varying landscapes. There are still the Craters of the Moon, the Clearwater Valley, Hell's Canyon, southeast Idaho, the Bruneau River and sand dunes, and on and on. The more I paint and explore, the more I value the work that ICL is doing to protect these places. I am so fortunate to live an artist's life in this amazing region.

Idaho Conservation League was a source of geographical information, logistical support, and encouragement throughout my year. They matched my efforts every time, enthusiastically supporting the gung-ho approach I took to my residence, which included over 100 works of art and three exhibitions over the course of the year. I could not have asked for a better collaborating organization.

My partnership with ICL has inspired me to continue to find ways to work with organizations in mutually beneficial projects - art has the ability to inspire an emotional connection to people and places, and as an artist it has been very satisfying to see this capability put to work for a cause in which I believe. Another benefit from an artist's perspective - collaborations have proved extremely effective in reaching a broader audience for my work. Advice to emerging artists -  figure out what you value, find an organization you respect who represents those values, and find creative ways of working together to promote each other's good work.

2015's Artist in Residence, Peter Lovera, and I had a brief conversation about his excitement for the upcoming year, and his excitement was contagious. He tossed out some ideas that never crossed my mind in the two years I've been working with ICL - ideas which use the characteristics of his medium effectively and creatively. Look out for a whole new take on what it means to be ICL's Artist in Residence in the coming year. And have fun, Peter!

Thank you to Idaho Conservation League for a fabulous experience working together. Special thanks to my dear friend Aimee Moran whose open mind considered all my ideas, feasible and not, and to Sean Scrivner who was vital in getting me to most of the far-out places I explored.