Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Show Rituals & Routines: Part 2

The following is a description of how I develop and work on a show. It is rather lengthy and contains several pop-out links to old posts/artwork so grab a cup of your favorite beverage and read onward if so desired.
A reader asked at one point if I sketch out ideas before painting or if I just "wing it." It depends on the show. Some shows have required endless hours of research and preparatory sketches; several years ago I did a series of works based on historical Chinese cut paper patterns for embroidery. I spent a lot of time looking at copyright-free images and developing new designs and compositions. Ultimately, I think I worked in that style for a couple of years. Sometimes, I just fly by the seat-of-my-pants as was the case with my Facades, Soul Terrain, and Ornithological Oddities series. This year's show, Figmenta, is somewhere in between intense prep and blindly stumbling forward. I've made some quickie layouts for paintings and then more carefully "pre-sketched" the individual elements. I used to battle this crazy superstition that I couldn't draw something the same way twice so I was scared to draw anything in too much detail for fear I'd never be able to reproduce the image on canvas. For the most part, I've moved past that fear, due in no small part, to a dedicated daily drawing practice. For all shows, I keep many large "processing" sketchbooks where I gather my notes, doodles, questions, layouts, visual inspiration & reference, show materials (price lists, artist statements, advertising) and even encouraging emails from friends and purchasers.

Figmenta is shaping up to be a very interesting show on many levels. Typically, when I put together a show, each piece follows a specific pattern of techniques so all the pieces have a cohesive look. However, with the Sparks of Madness show (which followed two years of a show entitled The Motley Menagerie,) that idea of cohesiveness started to breakdown as I discovered that sticking to one "look" was getting boring. I felt like I was chomping at the bit to push beyond the boundaries of my artistic box. As a result, that show had two distinct looks within one show: the very colorful creature paintings as well as the more monochromatic collage/mixed media pieces.

This year, Figmenta may have many series-within-the-series as I have given myself permission to play and bounce from idea to idea. Some of those ideas come from those show sketchbooks and it is gratifying to see rough, unrealized concepts from years past finally become reality.

Once I finish painting a piece, it moves into "review" status which simply means I prop it up on the bookcase that sits in front of the couch/next to the TV so I can see it from a distance whenever I am relaxing. Time and space allows me to see anything that needs to be fixed or added. Some paintings are immediately satisfying but others spend weeks under review as I try to parse out what small element needs adjustment before I can truly call the piece complete. It is important to note that if something is bugging me about a painting, I don't pay direct attention to the piece, struggling to find the error and fix it. This only leads to disaster. I've learned to let my subconscious chew on the problem while I move forward. Eventually, I have the necessary "AHA!" moment and know instantly what needs to be done. Sometimes, canvases will go into review status before they are complete and the reason is the same as for finished works: to problem solve without doing so directly.

Well, this is getting long so I think I break off here for now and return to this topic in my next post in which I present the first major piece completed for Figmenta. (Hint: You can sneak a peek at that canvas in the above photo.) If you have any questions, please ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Show Rituals & Routines: Part 1

Since no one raised any objections to all my chit-chat about show preparation, I'll just stay the course and continue onward with part one of a two-part post on the rituals I follow for each show. Today it's a brief overview of how I work each day.

Before I start serious work on pieces for my shows, my studio table gets a fresh covering of butcher paper. The table itself is a vintage schoolhouse table with folding sides that I found years ago at a thrift store (it came complete with bubblegum underneath!) It is a very dark, unappealing brown so I cover it with white paper. Lighting is the biggest downside of my studio space so the white paper helps lighten up the area and it provides me a better surface for judging colors. Butcher paper, even when shiny side up, isn't totally water-resistant so in the area where I actually sit & work, I top the butcher paper with a layer of clear contact paper. This makes that space easy to clean up and helps the butcher paper last longer. Cat-wrangling is necessary in my space as well; my calico girl Tuscany is pretty independent but my beloved Marley Bear likes to stay in my orbit for most of the day. He has a box that sits on a corner of the table so he has a place to snooze while I work. When I need a bit of a pick-me-up, I merely need to lean over and scrunch my hands through all the fabulously soft white fur of his substantial belly.

When I sit down to paint, I always have a specific set of objects at hand: my X-Files coffee cup with coffee, my favorite palettes, and my favorite water bowls. A few years back, I began using old Pyrex dishes and a pretty handmade ceramic bowl as my primary paint water dishes. I'm not entirely sure why I prefer these to plastic tubs or recycled jars but I do. This year, the brushes I use the most are in front of me in a handmade ceramic tumbler I also found at a thrift store. I guess I like the sturdiness and homespun quality of these objects.

I used to have a specific shirt that I painted in...a X-Files shirt I acquired back in the 90s when the show first debuted. I used that until it literally fell apart; I have it tucked away somewhere because I couldn't bear to throw it out. (I might need find it and use it for clean-up rags.) Anyway, now I have decent, (generally) paint-free things I wear to work and "painting shirts" which is to say, everything else. I use a lot of baby wipes to clean up messes on surfaces but when cleaning my hands, I typically just wipe them on whatever I'm wearing. I'm not a big fan of aprons so if company shows up unexpectedly, they get what they get. Most anyone I know that might show up knows I'm an artist and so no one is all that shocked by my paint-smeared appearance when I'm in "studio mode."

When I'm working, I typically have science fiction movies and shows playing in the background. Last summer's work on the "Sparks of Madness" show was completed while listening to the first four seasons of The X-Files. (You might be sensing a trend by now.) Star Trek, Twilight Zone, Aliens, The Fifth Element, the original Star Wars trilogy: those are all good too...anything I've seen a hundred times and don't need to actually watch to know what's going on. In the last couple of weeks, I've been experimenting with old time radio mystery shows as background noise but it is a bit distracting; I get caught up in the story and my focus shifts away from the work in front of me. When my awful neighbors are away (which isn't often enough,) I prefer the quiet, listening and painting to the natural sounds that emanate from the protected wildlife area that borders my apartment complex.

Another important component of my daily rituals is that I clean up my space completely at the end of every day. If I have a specific set of paint colors that I'm working with, I'll set those aside but otherwise, everything gets put cleaned up and put back where it belongs. Paintings dry overnight on the kitchen countertop. I like to start every day fresh and find that if I ended the night frustrated with some element of the painting I'm working on, a clean studio puts me in the right frame of mind for tackling that issue anew. In addition, if I don't clean up my space, the cats will play hockey with my supplies all night long and in the morning, I'll have to look under every piece of furniture in the room to retrieve my belongings.

On Wednesday, I'll post about the various routines I follow while in the midst of show production and what I do as I approach the date of installation. When I get closer to that event, I'll blog a bit about hanging a show and all the things you do to move the work from the studio out into the world. In between, it will be posts about the work I'm completing as well as posts on other random art stuff that takes place this summer.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Word-Sifting for Show Title Gold

I thought it might be interesting for some to see how I arrived at the title/theme for my show this year. Through a process I call "word-sifting," I settled on the title back on May 21 but I immediately tucked that word away in my heart & brain so it could take root, sprout, expand, and blossom in protective privacy. Today's the day though for that title to become public, to become a solid guiding light as my show prep transforms into show production.

Sometimes the title for a show comes easily - "Sparks of Madness" is an example - but often it is elusive. When that happens, when I have to go digging for inspiration. I love vintage dictionaries, thesauruses and texts on language roots; these books are rich with archaic words that are still valid but that have fallen out of use. They also help me play detective, discovering roots and relationships that can point me to just the right word.  I look for a word or phrase that encompasses the scope of the work I plan for the show, a word that is descriptive and intriguing but not restrictive. I take copious notes along the way and the following is an account of my word-sifting path to this year's show title:

MENAGERIE: I began with a word that I've used for the past two or three years (aka "The Motley Menagerie.") I love how this word sounds and the visuals it conjures but it was time to move on...

MUSEUM: For a while, I was stuck on "museum" as an offshoot of "menagerie" but in spite of listing several possible titles - such as "Minerva Magpie's Marvelous Museum of Monsters" - I finally decided that "museum" wasn't quite right for this year.

CARNIVAL: The next word that rose to the surface of my word-sifting...stalled here for a while as well but I decided to set this aside for a different collection of work.

SIDESHOW: Looking here at synonyms for "carnival" which led to...

CABINET OF CURIOSITIES: Research on this led to...

EMPORIUM: At this point, I began to think that perhaps I was looking for a descriptive word rather than a specific noun so I thought about how I could describe an "emporium." There were many options but the next word temporarily floated to the surface...

FANCY: Which led to...

FLIGHTS OF FANCY: This phrase led to the direct synonym...

WHIMS: Looked up variations of this...

WHIMSICAL: Looked at the definition here which led to...

IMAGINATION: Expanded this word into a common phrase...

FIGMENTS OF IMAGINATION: I was a bit adrift and frustrated by now so I started looking at word origins and broke this phrase apart...

FIGMENT: I realized I really liked the sound of this word so I dug into it a bit more, beginning with the definition - "A mere product of mental invention, a fantastic notion; a feigned, invented or imagined story." Oooooh...there's my "word of the year" - story. I think I'm on the right track so I keep sifting.

FIGMENTUM: This is the Latin root of "figment" related to the verb "fingere" which means "to form, contrive, shape." At this point, I knew the nugget of word inspiration I was looking for had risen to the surface but since my show contains multiple works and "figmentum" is singular, I transformed this word into its proper plural form in Latin...

So hello there to my 2016 show title! I love the familiar but fresh sound of this title and I like how it is general enough to serve as an umbrella for many different types of work but also specific enough to tie all those pieces together.

Note: I hope, dear readers, that you are not growing weary of this kind of post; this work is my primary focus for the balance of the summer. I'll try to remember to toss in posts unrelated to my show work but on balance, expect this thread to continue practically unabated as most other projects give way to my painting fever.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Flight Delay

Have you ever been on a long road trip (especially as the driver) and once you reached your destination and tried to relax, you felt as if you were still moving? That's where I'm at right now. The school year officially ended for me last Wednesday but I've been having difficulty settling down. I thought I would just explode into a painting frenzy the minute work was over but instead, I've been wandering to and fro, casually cleaning, doodling, binge-watching TV, cuddling the cats, reading, cooking...pretty much everything BUT intense art-making. I am working in the studio each day and I even started a canvas but my heart isn't quite up for it yet. In addition, I'm dealing with a flare-up of tendonitis in my left wrist/arm (which certainly isn't helped by the PD tremor there.) I have to be irritatingly careful with what I ask my body to do and I know it'll come to no good end if I push through thoughtlessly and try to do more than I am able. So I'm allowing myself a bit of wind down time before I wind up again and get serious about painting.

In a way, this wee flying piggie represents my current state. His wings are at the ready but he's hasn't quite left the ground yet. He's also a bit confused about where he's going as his artist creator was more than a little vague about his destination...sty in the sky?? I have no idea what I was thinking with that "house on a cloud" motif; I just felt compelled to put it there. It doesn't have a religious connotation...I know that much...but other than what it isn't, I don't know much else. Perhaps Piggie will tell me once he finally decided to take flight...

Friday, June 17, 2016

Looking Backward & Inward to Move Onward

About a week ago, I created this small painting as part of my show preparation process: I practice theme and technique ideas small-scale before I commit to multiple and/or larger works. This project was actually the thing that launched me "backwards" to the Index-Card-a-Day challenge and in turn, it may be these ICAD experiments that propel my show work forward. Let me explain...

If you are constantly striving to reference and reinvent your own work (as opposed to always relying on outside inspiration,) you always have unique ideas at hand. Those ideas quietly inhabit your brain, shifting in and out of your direct attention. You spend some time exploring and then the idea goes into hibernation, waiting for the right time to reemerge. Each time you drag that idea back out into the world (consciously or unconsciously,) it has evolved a little bit. Coincidentally, this is how your own "style" develops as well.

I've been playing around with yearbook photos as a starting point for character creation on and off since 2013. Last week, that idea unexpectedly showed up again, this time on canvas and with a twist. I was intrigued so I looked back at some of the ways I've approached this technique in the past. I keep many, many detailed notes and sketches of my "brainstorms" so research was just a matter of pulling the right notebook off the shelf. I decided to practice drawing yearbook portraits again, this time in a medium I had not tried before. Inspired by this timely post by Danny Gregory, I also started looking at vintage mugshots as well. Once I'd done a few "normal" portraits as warm-up, I felt brave enough to play more with the idea that had popped up on that little canvas.

The result is this quartet of "monster" portraits. While I kind of love this idea, I'm still not sure about committing these to canvas and including them in the October show. Thematically, they would definitely be relevant to an art show concurrent with Halloween/Day of the Dead. Commercially, the market for such oddball works might be very small. I just need to settle that age old artist dilemma for myself: paint what I love or paint what sells. In a perfect world, those two options are one and the same. Thrilled and terrified by the possibilities, I showed my little painting to a couple of local artists. One is an impressionist/abstract expressionist and the other is best described as an "outsider" artist who draws, paints, and sculpts all sorts of strange and whimsical beasties. Both artists, despite their diverse viewpoints, told me to "f*ing go for it!" Last year, I experienced an incredible amount of anxiety about putting my monster paintings out into public, but the reception was overwhelmingly welcoming. This might be another occasion where I need to just make what I want to make. Trying to predict what will be popular with the public is a waste of time and if there is one thing I don't have enough of, it is time. In addition, I have found that the more I pursue what excites me - without thought to what other people want - the more authentic my work becomes and interestingly, the better it sells. I think it is just a matter of reminding myself of what I already know so I can do the work in spite of my nerves.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

ICAD 2016: Revisiting a Favorite Technique

Given how hectic my teaching year has been, I told myself that I should ease up a bit during summer vacation: Nope, no Index-Card-a-Day for me this year. Since I have a ton of painting to do in the next two months, I told myself that I couldn't possibly squeeze in one more project. No way I could do ICAD 2016. Logistically impractical. Emotionally impossible....nope, no way, no how could I even consider joining in...

Well, I lasted all of 12 days before I decided to jump into the annual creativity fun fest that is ICAD, the brainchild of the irrepressible Tammy of Daisy Yellow. I did, however, make a few allowances for myself: I probably won't make all 61 cards and that's totally OK. I'm not the least bit concerned with "catching up." Some days, I might make five cards and then again, I may go five days without making a single card. I may not post about all the cards I make and that's OK too.  I'm just going to dip my toes into the challenge whenever I feel the water's fine and when it's too chilly or I'm too busy for a swim, I'm going to let it go.

All that said, I have very specific plans for how to approach ICAD 2016. My cards this year are completely conjoined with my preparations for my October show (two birds with one stone and all that.) I'm not entirely sure yet where my show is going visually and thematically but I do have one wee wild idea to explore and experiments are needed. Enter my first set of index cards for this year. I'm working on some ancient (and consequently extremely sturdy) index card dividers that I found at my local recycling center. I brush on some grey acrylic paint and then, using vintage, black & white yearbook photos as reference, I draw characters with permanent black pen and color the portraits with pencil. 

I've worked with yearbook photos many times and it still tickles my fancy. During ICAD 2013, I used gouache in monochromatic tones to create the portraits. In the summer of 2014, while convalescing from foot surgery, I created "Postal People" with yearbook photos as reference. In the fall of 2015, I began a portrait series in watercolor in which I improvise the colorization once I get the basic shapes drawn.

Sometimes the portrait is highly flawed: a square chin becomes enormous, a cute nose blossoms into an unrecognizable monstrosity, a forehead becomes desperately unflattering, wide open eyes suddenly squint. I often make myself laugh at my efforts, sometimes in joy and sometimes in despair. I keep moving forward though, always working in pen without any pre-drawing. This is how I learn to ignore the shrill panic of my inner critic. And most importantly, one of the ways I create, develop, and refine my "style" is by constantly returning to and reinventing old ideas. This week's set of index cards is just the next step in my progression. Like an Escher drawing that chases its own graphite imagery, I will keep twisting, folding, and bending this idea into new forms and formats. More is coming...

Monday, June 13, 2016

Summertime Crystal Ball

Ah, summer break! There's a couple days left in the 2015-2016 school year but they are filled with a beach field trip, barbecue, "Olympic" games, and graduations. The bulging "Lost & Found" will be hung outside to encourage reclamation of wayward clothing. The kitchen is being scrubbed until it shines. The school bunny will find a summer home. Someone will be assigned to care for the chickens and gardens while school is out. All displays and bulletin boards will be cleared and an avalanche of papers will be sent to parents. I'll do an intense organization and clean up of my office so it will be ready for me to return in August. 

As I look ahead to late June, July, and early August, I see a lot of painting in my future. I see lots of journal play and creature doodling. I'll do plenty of art play with purpose: summer is when I develop new lessons for the fall slate of classes. I also spy a bounty of jewelry projects that have been waiting for some quality down time to come to fruition. (I craft almost all my own jewelry and every summer I make a bunch of pieces to wear in the new school year. Pictured here are just a few of the things I made last summer.)

I also see a fresh, rainbow-soaked fabric project in my future. I recently made a very simple banner for my balcony garden and I thoroughly enjoyed using my sewing machine again. So, in a burst of enthusiasm, I reacquainted myself with the quilting books in my library and then sorted through my rather embarrassing fabric stash. I got all those fat quarters organized by color - lightest to darkest - and the entire pile is waiting patiently to become patchwork.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Egg, Egg, Chick

This is another page in my little "Drifting" journal. I've enjoyed all this leisurely hopping betwixt random sketchbooks and journals that I've been doing in the last couple of months; I used to work in only one or two journals at a time, focusing on those volumes until they were complete, before I would allow myself to move on. Bah! Self-imposed rules! Now I just grab something off the shelf in the morning and get to work. Sometimes I stick with that project for a few days and sometimes I switch gears the very next day. I think I'll probably continue this practice as I begin to focus intensely on producing work for my October show in the next two months.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Fresh but Familiar

This is another page in my "messin' around" journal, a large mixed media sketchbook that I'm using as a playground for show prep experimentation. Once I'm reasonably sure about what I'll be painting, I need to work out how I'll be painting. I try to change things up for each show, altering my technique here and there so my work for each collection looks fresh but also familiar. This year, among other things, I'm working on adding more texture to my work. I'm also aiming for a wider value range in each piece.  There's still a lot of things up in the air for me so I need to buckle down in the next two weeks (when I'm not teaching or recovering from teaching) and make some firm decisions about process and imagery. Some of this show prep is very deliberate and thought out; a lot, however, is in the realm of serendipity and happenstance. Some things I plan and others I stumble upon. For me, the best shows reflect a nice balance of both. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Hacking the Studio: Vol. 3

Welcome once again to "Hacking the Studio," a monthly feature here at Lost Coast Post that opens my studio up to you a wee bit at a time, showing a few of the ways I make my creative space as functional, organized, and inspirational as possible. My studio occupies most of the second floor of my apartment, a long, narrow room with a lofty ceiling and fairly poor natural lighting (the biggest drawback of this space.) It is my studio, living room, library, and bedroom with a sunny balcony at one end and the tiny kitchen at the other. I have made it my sanctuary and it is a place I adore. There are twinkly lights, paper lanterns, mismatched and stacked thrift store furniture, two cats, and lots of stuff. I'm hoping to do a little video tour of my space once summer break starts but for now, let's get into this month's "hacks."

Cat-Proof Palettes:

As I mentioned, I am owned by two cats: Tuscany is a shy, temperamental, manipulative, and secretly snuggly calico girl while Marley Bear is a huge marmalade sweetie who is unlike any cat I've ever known. Bear, in particular, loves to be up on my studio table. When he is not snoring contentedly in his favorite Amazon box, he is in my face and in the middle of everything, looking for love. This can be a major problem if I am painting. To help prevent painty paw prints, my paint palettes are those hinged tin boxes that pencil sets come in (any shallow metal tin with a lid will work.) When I need to get up, I just simply close the lid on the wet paint and walk away worry free. I never clean the palette; I just let it dry and pour new paint on top. Sometimes I line it with the glossy, white backing from laminating sheets. Acrylic paints peel right up from this surface and allow me to remove dried paint in large pieces if needed.

Sketchbook Tags:

I've posted this tip before but it is one that bears repeating. I have several wirebound sketchbooks and in order to identify their contents quickly, I use round, metal-rimmed tags hung from the binding. This means I don't have to pull each book down trying to find the one I need. I also use this technique in my classroom. A student can find his/her own sketchbook immediately on a shelf filled with 30 identical books.

The Inspiration Shel(ves):

This a relatively new feature of my studio; I think I started my inspiration collection about five years ago but it has grown quickly. Next to my studio table, directly to my right, I have gathered all sorts of little figures that make me smile. There are monsters, robots, characters, and critters. Many of them represent favorite images and creatures that occur frequently in my work (otherwise known as my lexicon.) Whenever I require a burst of inspiration, I need only turn my head. If I am feeling stuck, I will rearrange the figures (dusting as I go) and often, the simple process of interacting with these happy-making things will provide the burst of positive thought I need to plow through a creative block.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Stardust and Drumbeats

I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Just seven more teaching days of school left! I'll get about a week off and then I have a retreat to attend as our staff begins summer break with a huge planning session for next year. That way, we have the entire summer to prepare for new classes, students, jobs, and events. In the fall, I'll be returning to art teaching and related tasks exclusively; I've been working as a special education aide since last October in addition to my regular schedule and while my heart wishes to continue, my brain and body say "NO!" resoundingly. It was not an easy decision (I'm terrible at saying "no" to things) but in the end, I realized it was critical to attend to my health needs and for once, I opted to put myself first. 

I'm still working along in a wide swath of projects as the school days slip past. These two pages are in what I'm calling the "Small Unexpected Convergences" journal. If you missed the large "Unexpected Convergences" journal, this link will wisk you away to the Flickr album of that journal in its entirety. In addition, I'm plodding along in show prep. I've hit the usual "Nobody is going to like this" phase of the project which, truth be told, is a phase that comes and goes right up to "premiere night" the second Friday in October. It is mental quicksand courtesy of my inner critic which can mire an idea in the doldrums if I'm not careful. Honestly, as if I was avoiding the wrath of some sort of large, deadly predator, I try not to look that critic in the eye, keep my head down, and just do the work. I concentrate on that inner drumbeat instead and purposefully march forward, even it is only one small step at a time.
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