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July 2010

More Raven Tales

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"When Beaver Stole Fire from the Pines"

oil, 16 x 20 Sue Favinger Smith @2010

The subject for this painting is drawn from a Nez Perce story called How Beaver Stole Fire from the Pines,  which I discovered on the United Cherokee Ani-Yun-Wiya Nation website.  They indicated that the story was first recounted for the American public in the Journal of American Folk Lore, 1890.  This was a period in American history when ethnologists went out to the people of the First Nations and attempted to "preserve a culture" before it was completely assimilated.  Not all stories would have been recounted.

As with all First Nation storytelling, there are multiple layers of meaning: some seek to explain the natural world - why mountains and rivers are shaped the way they are, and others speak to moral or behavioral dilemmas, codes of conduct, heroics and honoring the earth and all who inhabit it. 

Many First Nation Stories are deeply personal vessels containing the most sacred elements of culture, and are not in the public domain.  As I've researched subject matter for this series, I've learned that if a story is not connected to its cultural roots, it loses meaning.  And - as with painting - it is necessary to "find the story" first, to make that connection of meaning, and in context. 

From an artistic standpoint, I knew that I did not want to merely "illustrate" a story.  A core belief of First Nation culture revolves around honoring the wisdom in the natural world, in the ancestors, "before there were people." I feel that to merely illustrate - to depict a scene from the storyboard - would be to diminish the purpose of the story.  I needed to first find the story, find the personal meaning within the story, and then attempt to communicate in paint an idea, a starting point for the viewer to step in where I have left off and find his or her own connection.

When Beaver Stole Fire from the Pines is not a safe painting.  In a way, Raven Stealing the Hat from Fog Man was "safe."  It was a basic notan painting, using the bold gestural marks that we expect in the Abstract Expressionist tradition.  It communicated a clear idea.  The painting "presented" itself to me fully formed - in that subject matter, composition, approach all worked together to communicate an idea.  No doubt other work in this series will also utilize this visual approach, when it is an effective means of communication.  But the Beaver painting needed to be something else.  It needed to express some of the mystical qualities in First Nation storytelling, when Raven, Coyote, Beaver were not yet animals, nor were they entirely Indian. 

It needed to be "almost real." 

Can This Economy Support Your Ego?

A lot of business advice given to artists involves spending money - on websites, jury fees, workshops, self promotion.  There are artists who become successful because they are able to "get their work out there."

There are probably just as many, if not more, who become successful because they don't.  Instead of working on the external, they turn their attention to the internal - improving their skill at producing work people want.  

In this economy each decision you make should be weighed against the criteria of what you expect in return.  Will this jury fee result in acceptance into a show that will raise my visibility and attract collectors?  Or will the work hang for a weekend, at a cost of framing and shipping and risk of damage? 

Spending money is fine, if it's spent wisely.  But the number of entries in the ego section of your vita - where things like Recent Exhibitions is listed, is not an accurate measure of success. I would place that measurement on number of entries in the bottom section of your vita, where "In The Collection Of" is listed.

Which part of your vita are you focused on?

Raven Stories


"Raven Stealing the Hat from Fog Man"

22 x 22, oil, @ Sue Favinger Smith 2010

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how other artists used context to build a body of work.  Since the broader context for my work is based on Paintings from the Oregon Outback, creating a series based upon Native American stories from the Pacific Northwest and Interior Western Deserts seemed a natural extension. The image above - "Raven Stealing the Hat from Fog Man", is the first in a new series based on Native American myth and stories.

The Raven stories were told throughout the Pacific Northwest by the First People.  Raven was a trickster, always looking for an easy solution.  In this story - Raven and the Tides - Raven wanted an easy way to get the food in the ocean.  In his quest, he needed to steal the hat from Fog Man.

The different set of stories come from the Northern Paiutes, a group that thrived throughout Northern California, Northern Nevada, Eastern Oregon and into Idaho (and also provided most of our colorful history relating to Indian raids).  They often revolve around Coyote and his older brother Wolf, along with Deer, Beaver, and a wonderful story about Crane and Frog which will be the source of my next painting in this series.  What excites my imagination and resonates creatively with me is the idea that these stores are as current today as they were hundreds of years ago. They relate to codes of human behavior, what happens to tricksters, those who are overly proud or selfish, or foolish enough not to listen to their elders - ideas that resonate through every culture.

I hope you will enjoy this exploration with me of story, myth and the ancient spirits.  

You've probably already realized that "Raven Stealing the Hat from Fog Man" isn't a traditional landscape like some of the images I've recently posted.  And it's true, dealing with two distinctly different styles is a challenge and flies in the face of conventional wisdom.  But I think of my two styles as opposite ends of a the same spectrum, moving from realism to abstract, but all centered upon the spirit of the landscape - which is not just topography, but memories, ancient people, and places in time. 

These paintings will be part of the broader Ancestor Series and Mesa Series , focusing on figurative and landscape.  When I was preparing for my Perception and Imagination show at High Desert Gallery in Bend, Oregon, last year, I wrote a few posts about it, and for those of you who are interested, here are the links to "Painting with Sharp Knives" and "Eruptions, Grasslands and Elephants - More Images From Perception and Imagination."   

Photoshop, Reference Photos, and Paintings


This is a typical reference photo - boring, right? Instead or reminding me of what I was inspired to paint, it leaves me wondering what it was that interested me in the first place.  There seems to be a focal point, but little information as to what the viewer would be looking at if I were to paint this image. Because the camera records what it "sees", everything carries the same visual weight: the lighting is drab and uniform, the color lifeless, and working strictly from such a photo guarantees an uninspired result. 


Same image, after playing with it in Photoshop. Since I remembered being interested in the rising storm,  I wanted to "see" the structure of the clouds with an idea of working this image more abstractly. The reference photo did not give enough visual information , but by using Photoshop I can "see" exactly what I need.

Try this yourself when you're looking for new inspiration.  First, duplicate your original image.  Remember that each time you open a jpeg it looses a tiny bit of information. I save important images as tiffs, which do not degrade each time you open them.  But with reference photos jpegs will do. 

Working with your copy, select the Enhance tab.  Click on adjust Brightness/Contrast, then on Levels.  You will see a bell curve with sliding tabs beneath.  Move the left tab to the beginning of the left upward edge of the curve, then do the same with the far right tab, moving to the beginning (or ending) on the right side curve.  This keeps the darkest dark in the same relationship to the lightest light and you'll immediately see the difference.  Now play around with the middle slider to see how changing the image allows you to see the details - lighter to see foreground elements, darker to see distant values. Click okay when you get the information you want. 

Another trick is to play around with the Hue/Saturation feature.  Again, go to  Enhance, then Adjust Color, and play around with the two sliders for hue and saturation.  It's a good way to jump start the artistic interpretation and get away from merely duplicating what you see.  

Lessons From The Recession


"Grasslands in Winter"  12 x 28 @2010

Henry Ford once remarked that "anyone who stops learning is old."  Robert Henri shared similar thoughts with his students.  Every day we discover something new - a different a subject, or using color, small things and large, what works and what needs to work better.  When our pathway is easy we take learning for granted.  But when the path becomes difficult, when sales slow down or disappear, rejections mount, doors slam shut, it's difficult to retain a learning state of mind or reclaim the optimism necessary for growth. 

Clint Watson wrote "How Matters More Than How Long" on his Fine Art Views blog, where he gives some practical advice about learning and growing instead of simply repeating.  We get to a comfortable place where we have mastered aspects of our craft, and stepping out of that comfort zone might seem merely inconvenient.  Things aren't selling, or perhaps they are, so no point in rocking the boat.  Who can take chances when the future seems precarious and safety or security feel more important?

There's also that nagging feeling that a wall of frustration exists just one step beyond where you are with your art. You're out of your depth there, moving further away from your goals instead of closer, facing a talent that's insufficient, technique that's ineffective, and an ability to improve nonexistent.  And yet self-education is the one thing you can control.  Not the economy, not galleries or juried shows or whether someone buys your art or not.  

And this is the one lesson from the recession that you shouldn't overlook.

Learning in the face of imminent failure, where there seems to be little purpose in what you are doing other than your deep need and love for the action - this is what the recession has to offer.  Suddenly you must reexamine why you are doing this - becoming an artist. How necessary is it to your sense of well being?  How painful will it be to let it go?  Recognizing your desire and focusing on the intensity of your need will help you reclaim the enthusiasm to learn and to push yourself further toward your goals.

Learning tips:

  • Focus on your desire and not the outcome.
  • Be open to the idea that there are always secrets to learn about something you love.
  • Recall what you have previously learned and whether it continues to benefit you.
  • Be open to relearning by approaching the task from a different direction.
  • There is no greater joy than seeing the results of your learning.

Sunday Salon: Sitting Down with James English Babcock

I "met" California artist James English Babcock through Facebook.  Recently, he posted a video for his fans. I thought it was such a great idea that I asked if I could share it on this blog.  

How many of us have enjoyed art openings and wondered how we could promote our art beyond the standard email or postcard mailing, or wondered how we could make our blog posting more interactive?  We hear lots of ideas about promoting our art, but how are those other artists  doing it?

James English Babcock took the opportunity at a recent art opening of his to create a YouTube video interview with himself, which he then posted to facebook as well as on his blog. It takes a bit of planning, learning how to make and post a video to YouTube, and then arranging for the time at the gallery space before the crowds.  But wouldn't it be fun to include some of the crowd action, too? 

James English Babcock "is a self taught landscape artist with a focus toward realism," as the bio page on his website will tell you, but the images of his very large format paintings felt to me to be the equivalent of "being there."  I particularly enjoyed reading about how he prefers the back roads and out of the way views of his California Wine Country location, rather than painting the vineyards. I hope you will check out his work.

Here is the link to The Art of James English Babcock website and the link to the blog is here.